BURRILLVILLE – Told he would be demoted, and suspended for a week over an alleged violation of the district’s code of conduct, Capt. Colin Fenner resigned on Friday, Aug. 13 from his position with the Oakland Mapleville Fire Department.
The district’s 4th in command since his promotion last year, Fenner said he’s leaving the department due to ongoing issues and unethical behavior related to a relationship between the chief and a member of the staff.
The chief, meanwhile, said he could not discuss the issue until after a meeting of the OMFD operating committee scheduled for next week, when members appear to be on track to discuss the resignation.
“He’s a disgruntled employee,” Chief Joseph Bertholic said, noting that he would have to attend the meeting to learn what he’s authorized to openly discuss.
The recent conflict began on Thursday, July 29, when Fenner says an elected member of the fire committee called 911. When the rescue crew arrived the committee member reportedly would not allow OMFD firefighter Sherri Ferri into the house, and two other firefighters had to be called to the scene in her place.
Ferri has reportedly been dating Bertholic since sometime last year, and the relationship was the reason the firefighter was not allowed in the home, according to Fenner. The committee member who called 911 was one of four on the board who requested a meeting last December to discuss Bertholic’s job performance, and concerns over the intradepartmental relationship, after receiving a letter from a concerned resident, Fenner says.
News of the relationship between Ferri and Bertholic confirmed information NRI NOW received last December from an anonymous caller who was also displeased with the department around the same time as that meeting.
The meeting was held in executive session, and Bertholic says it was not related to his relationship with Ferri, but would not elaborate further. He denied that his personal connection to the firefighter has affected department business, saying there are currently, “at least six,” ongoing romantic relationships within the district, including one between Fenner and another staff member.
Fenner, who also served as the district’s EMS director, took issue with the service problems caused for the busy department by the July 911 call, where Ferri was not permitted to do the job that she’s trained for.
“It led to a delay in the rescue transporting and (tied) up the rescue unnecessarily,” Fenner said. “We run multiple calls simultaneously every day and have mutual aid in our town because all three rescues are out almost daily now. The hindrance of our operational status was affected for a reason that is completely unacceptable.”
Fenner sent an angry message to the committee member who called 911 privately on social media following the incident.
“You don’t get to choose who’s working on the rescue,” Fenner wrote, adding that the committee member should “get a life,” and not focus on the staffs’ personal lives. “You call 911 and you get who shows up. This isn’t your personal rescue service. There will be complaints filed. I’m sick of this s**t. And I’m ashamed. I assumed you wouldn’t be part of it.”
On Monday, Aug. 2, Bertholic, who serves at the discretion of the elected fire committee, told Fenner he would have to apologize for the message, or face suspension. The captain refused to apologize.
“Maybe my tact wasn’t great, but if many people found themselves in this situation, I’m not sure their response would be any better,” Fenner later told NRI NOW. “As it’s a direct result of the chief’s affair, it would have been smarter to let the next in command handle it, but he tried hiding it, and I wasn’t even supposed to know about the incident.”
Fenner says he requested documentation regarding why he was being suspended and received a memo on the disciplinary action on Thursday, Aug. 12 citing the district’s code of conduct, which states that, “Employees of the Oakland Mapleville Fire Department shall treat all coworkers, volunteers, patients, persons assisted and visitors with the utmost respect and courtesy. They shall conduct themselves in a professional manner at all times.”
“Receipt of that message made the patient feel uncomfortable at the thought of having to call the rescue again if in need of medical aid,” Bertholic wrote in a memo regarding the captain’s message to the committee member. “The family members were very upset by the message that was sent as well.”
The chief notes he, “took the discipline he felt was appropriate,” a suspension from August 2 through August 11. The memo also stated that Fenner would be demoted from captain to private as part of the disciplinary action.
Fenner resigned the following day. He said he believes it was unethical for the chief to address the situation between the 911 caller and Ferri, as it was directly related to his relationship.
The former captain points to many recent resignations/departures from the small village department, including former Capts. Troy Phillips and Grant Fournier, and firefighter John Wheeler, who now serves on the district’s operating committee.
“We are losing experience left and right,” Fenner said. “The department has lost a lot already the past two years and it’s going to lose more if this keeps up.”
In his letter, Fenner states that the district’s problems cannot be fixed until Bertholic is no longer at the helm.
“I can no longer serve in a department whose mission is not in line with that of the fire service,” Fenner wrote. “The actions of the leadership of the department over the past week make it clear, the department no longer represents what I know the fire service is.”
“Should the chief be handling an issue that directly involved himself and his girlfriend? No, that’s completely unethical and exactly what the board was worried about when the affair became public knowledge,” Fenner wrote. “When the chief conspires against a member of his own command staff because that member finally spoke out about the inherent problems caused by the affair he had in the station, that chief has failed.”
“I can no longer look past my principals, and my loyalty to the fire service itself,” Fenner continued. “I have disrespected myself and my standing in the fire service for the benefit of holding together a department that is tearing itself apart.”
“The buck stops at the top,” Fenner added, saying that Ferri and the chief should resign, along with an appointed commissioner involved with his suspension. “If the people who fund the department knew what happens inside that building day in and day out, it would be defunded, quicker than Nasonville was.”
The neighboring fire district of Nasonville is currently in the midst of a merger with Oakland Mapleville following a vote by residents in 2019 to dissolve the department after a dispute with the union.
Fenner said he has spoken to members of the fire committee about the situation, and it will be discussed at an upcoming meeting. The agenda for a monthly meeting scheduled for Wednesday, Aug. 25, which lists “a request for executive session to discuss personnel matters and letters received,” can be found here.
But Fenner says the outcome will not change his decision to leave the department.
“I am resigning because this department is a failure and it’s a direct result of the chief’s affair and everything that’s come since,” he wrote, adding that those involved, “have created an us against them mindset at the department and I’m embarrassed to admit I was sucked right into it.”
“At some point, someone needs to take a stand,” Fenner wrote. “I’ll be that someone. I can no longer serve under that kind of leadership.”
“The department exists to provide a service, plain and simple, (and) that service is dying, at an alarming rate,” he added. “It has been a pleasure serving the community.”
Editor’s note: If more information is provided following the meeting on Wednesday, Aug. 25, NRI NOW will publish a follow-up to this story.