A longtime fire chief in Eastern Santa Cruz County is out after an investigation turned up what fire board members called an unauthorized pay increase dating back to late 2018.
Joseph DeWolf, former chief of the Sonoita-Elgin Fire District, was fired effective Jan. 5, according to a notice of termination letter sent by the SEFD board, which said that the chief was ultimately overpaid more than $30,000 between November 2018 and October 2020.
DeWolf denied the allegations, asserting that the fire board was well aware of the pay increase and had, in fact, approved the raise at a meeting in November 2018.
The board’s move came about two months after DeWolf was placed on paid administrative leave while an investigation was opened into unrelated allegations about a hostile work environment at the fire district. Chris Johnson, chairman of the SEFD board, said that the issue about DeWolf’s compensation came to light during that investigation.
“That wasn’t the original intent” of the workplace investigation, Johnson said.
While the original investigation is still underway, the board decided to terminate DeWolf after opening a separate inquiry into his pay raise.
“It happened under his watch,” Johnson told the NI. “It happened under the board’s watch as well, but he’s ultimately responsible for making sure that stuff like that, especially his own salary, is clear and recorded and done properly.”
The notice of termination was dated Jan. 4 and gave DeWolf a day to reply. The former chief’s response was dated the next day and included copies of meeting minutes that DeWolf said showed the board had signed off on monthly expense reports showing his salary increase.
“These financials clearly show that board members were aware of the increase since 2018,” he wrote.
Johnson said the board met again to consider DeWolf’s response, but didn’t change course: “Basically, it was a reiteration of stuff we already knew.”
“The way the financial information was presented as separate line items, we didn’t really figure it out, that that’s what had happened,” until the investigation began, Johnson said.
According to DeWolf’s version of events, the board voted at its November 2018 meeting to give him the raise. Meeting minutes accessed on the district’s website this week didn’t appear to document that action. (DeWolf also contended in his letter that some meeting agendas and minutes were “incomplete and contradictive.”)
Johnson said that board members don’t fully remember the meeting, which took place more than two years ago, but said that if there was talk of a raise for the chief at that time, “we certainly didn’t take action on it, we didn’t vote on it.”
Broader changes sought at SEFD
For now, the district is led by acting Chief Jon Buonaccorsi, who Johnson said will be a candidate for the permanent role. DeWolf also served as chief of the Palominas Fire District in Cochise County through an Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) with that district and Johnson said the two districts are set to talk about how they’ll coordinate going forward.
The investigation into the workplace environment is ongoing – Johnson said it will look into claims of verbal and physical abuse, retaliation and one allegation of sexual harassment. One other district employee has been placed on administrative leave in relation to the investigation, he said.
Johnson said the bigger goal is to open a new chapter for SEFD: “We’re trying to make it a much nicer place to live and work.”
DeWolf had served as SEFD chief since 2002, but the final years of his tenure brought controversy.
He and the SEFD board sparred over his pay in early 2015, when the board sought to cut DeWolf’s salary from $84,000 to $75,000. (DeWolf earned a separate salary from Palominas through the IGA.) The board eventually scrapped the salary cut and renewed the chief’s salary at the same level, but not before inflaming tensions.
Board meetings at the time drew residents arguing both for and against the move and an SEFD battalion chief stepped down shortly after the controversy, saying the attempted pay cut amounted to the board trying to force DeWolf out. Shortly after, four of the five fire board members resigned.
And the ongoing workplace investigation stems in part from a prior allegation by a local woman that DeWolf had tried to kiss her in the course of an unwanted advance in late 2018. Johnson said some district employees reported that they feared retaliation for their participation in the investigation.
Did the broader context of the workplace investigation also influence the board’s decision to fire DeWolf?
“Yes and no,” Johnson said. “There were a number of things that were going on that we were looking at.”
But he added that the pay irregularities were “more than enough” to justify the chief’s termination.
DeWolf did not respond to emailed requests for comment.