Gardner Lake volunteer chief cited in firehouse scuffle

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Salem — The Gardner Lake Volunteer Fire Co. chief, accused of creating a public disturbance during a scuffle at the firehouse last year, is due in court Tuesday for a hearing in the case.

Records show the incident involving James Savalle happened March 24, 2018, although it’s unclear when police cited him with creating a public disturbance, which is a criminal infraction that doesn’t involve an arrest.

Because the incident happened more than two months ago, state police only could confirm it happened at the fire station at 429 Old Colchester Road.

Per a new policy, they deferred requests for further information to Legal Affairs, an arm of the state Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection that sometimes takes more than two years to provide information.

Bruce Henry, the former assistant chief who reported the incident, said he and three other members were at the station that day to formally complain about Savalle’s alleged propensity for losing his temper.

They had shared their concerns with the department’s board president, Cheryl Philopena, a day before, Henry said. She asked them to come back and reiterate what they said, but this time in front of Savalle.

Henry said the four of them together might have agreed to that, but Philopena wanted each firefighter to sit before her and Savalle separately.

“The captain of the fire police spoke up and said, ‘Look, we voiced our concerns,’” Henry said. “‘We don’t feel we want to sit down with him in the room and go over the whole thing again.’”

Henry said Philopena raised her voice in response, so he took his pager off his belt, set it on the coffee bar and moved to exit the building.

As others in the station began arguing, Henry alleges Savalle grabbed him by the chest and tried to take his badge, then later grabbed him again and shoved him out the door.

Henry didn’t call 911 that day — he ultimately went back inside and talked things out with Savalle — but when Savalle was “back to his old tricks” a week later, Henry said he submitted a letter of resignation and later reported the incident to state police.

Henry, who said all four involved firefighters no longer are with the department, questioned why it took police so long to issue a ticket in the case.

“I’m not trying to be spiteful,” he said. “It’s too late for the four of us. I just don’t want it to happen to anybody else.”

Asked to give Savalle’s side of the story, Waterford-based attorneys Thomas Simones and Jack O'Brien, who are representing Savalle, offered no comment.

First Selectman Kevin Lyden said Savalle, one of two paid firefighters in town, has not been placed on paid administrative leave in relation to the incident.

Lyden said he consulted the town’s labor attorney and together they determined Savalle was acting as a volunteer chief — not as a town employee — when the weekend scuffle occurred.

“I can’t overreach on a volunteer organization,” Lyden said.

Each of Salem’s fire departments — Gardner Lake and the Salem Volunteer Fire Department — is required to have one paid staff member. Each paid staffer works from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, unless Lyden calls one of them in to handle an emergency.

“We’ve had a legal review of it — that the paid guy can also be the volunteer chief,” Lyden said. “And the union has never not supported it in the contracts I’ve dealt with.

“But it gets confusing,” he said. “They have to take off one hat and put on another.”

Asked about other state and town employees who have been placed on administrative leave even when their alleged crimes happened off-duty, Lyden said the town doesn’t have a written policy on the matter.

“I would have to make the judgment call: At what level do you put someone on administrative leave pending an outcome?” he said.

Lyden said the situation highlights a “murky area” the Board of Selectmen may address in the future.

Lyden said while the raised allegations are “concerning,” he spoke with the investigating trooper, East Haddam Resident Trooper Patrick Hawes, and learned Hawes never found proof of physical contact among the involved parties.

“There’s a fine line on this stuff,” said Lyden, who said the East Haddam trooper investigated the case rather than one from Salem to avoid a potential conflict of interest.

Lyden said Savalle has been an employee of the town for at least two decades.

He was re-elected to a three-year term as chief in the summer of 2017 after stepping down for an unspecified reason during the preceding winter.

Savalle and the other paid firefighter each make $22.37 per hour, for an annual income of about $58,159 plus overtime.

Lyden said he’ll pay attention to the outcome of Savalle’s case and consult the labor attorney again if need be.

“I keep a good eye on everything that’s going on in town,” he said.

l.boyle@theday.com

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