Northfield Village -- The village will seek new leadership for its fire department after Village Council unanimously approved a decision by Mayor Jesse Nehez to fire Fire Chief Gary Vojtush Dec. 12.
"I took this action," wrote Nehez in a press release, "because I had come to the conclusion that the department required new leadership and a new voice going forward."
Nehez and Vojtush did not return calls seeking comment.
Village Law Director Brad Bryan said that the day Vojtush was fired, he was also serving a one-day suspension for allegedly failing to follow the mayor's orders. Bryan claimed the reasons for the suspension were not connected with the firing.
Bryan said the termination followed a procedure outlined in an amendment to the village's charter that voters approved Nov. 6. The amendment gives authority to terminate the fire chief to the mayor in his role as public safety director, subject to approval by at least two-thirds of Council.
Bryan said Council also voted unanimously Dec. 12 to appoint Fire Capt. Jason Buss as interim chief.
"Acting Chief Buss will be a candidate for the chief's position," wrote Nehez.
Bryan said Vojtush was asked to resign Dec. 11. In a letter to Nehez that day, Vojtush offered to resign as chief, but asked to remain on the department.
"I have 25 years of part-time experience, 18 years of full-time experience, and have served on the Northfield Village Fire Department for 12-and-a-half years, with eight of those years being the fire chief," wrote Vojtush. "With limited local personnel on the fire department, I feel I would be an asset to continue as a firefighter/paramedic with the village of Northfield."
However, in a response to Vojtush Dec. 12, Nehez wrote that he was "terminating you from your position as Northfield Village fire chief and your employment with the village."
In his press release, Nehez said he "felt that his remaining on the department would not create an optimal climate in which the new chief could operate in the immediate future."
In a Dec. 6 letter sent to Vojtush, Nehez explained that Vojtush would be suspended because he allegedly failed to follow orders.
"I expect you to pay more attention and respect to my directives in the future," wrote Nehez.
The letter gave no indication that Vojtush was at risk of being fired.
In the letter, Nehez wrote that Vojtush failed to inform him and Bryan that he had been subject to disciplinary action at his full-time job with the Parma Fire Department, which violated a verbal order that he and Bryan be informed of any criminal charges or disciplinary action at an outside job that are brought against a village employee. Nehez explained this is "because we do not want to be blindsided by negative information."
According to an Oct. 3 letter to Vojtush from Parma Public Safety Director Gregory Baeppler, Vojtush was determined guilty of violating departmental rules by signing, along with six other department members, a letter making an unfounded allegation that two firefighters cheated on an Emergency Medical Service test. Vojtush was suspended for 13 shifts, according to Baeppler's letter.
Nehez also alleged that in late September, Vojtush told a firefighter to perform repair work on an ambulance's air conditioner, "resulting in additional damage to the unit, more delays in getting the unit repaired, and further expense to the village." Nehez wrote that this was in violation of a written order earlier in the month that the village service department would determine how such repairs would be handled.
Vojtush was appointed chief in January 2004 after former Fire Chief John Lowey retired.
"Council and I would like to thank Chief Vojtush for his 12-plus years of service to the Northfield Village Fire Department and nearly nine years as chief," wrote Nehez in his press release. "We wish him well in his future endeavors."