WIND LAKE — The Norway town chairwoman is taking a wait-and-see stand regarding allegations of misconduct in Dane County against Don Catenacci, the new fire chief for the Wind Lake Volunteer Fire Company.
Catenacci, in addition to his part-time position as fire chief in Wind Lake, is also a part-time assistant chief for the Verona Fire Department in Dane County.
In Verona, several emergency medical services personnel with the Fitch-Rona EMS District and a lieutenant with Verona Fire have accused Catenacci of mocking personnel, making homophobic comments and disguising violence as “horseplay.” Fitch-Rona and Verona Fire share a facility in Verona. However, several members of the Verona Fire Department — including purported victims — have defended Catenacci, according to a report provided to The Journal Times by the City of Verona.
According to the report: “Assistant Chief Catenacci claims he has made a concerted effort over the past few months to change his behavior to include not touching people, remembering that he is a chief at all times in the eyes of subordinates, and holding himself to a higher standard of accountability for his behavior.”
Jean Jacobson, town chair for Norway, which contracts its fire and EMS services from the Wind Lake Fire Company, said she wants to “wait and see” what happens with the investigation in Verona before considering recommending any action against Catenacci in Wind Lake.
Jacobson added that she has been “extremely impressed with the work he’s done so far” since Catenacci became chief in September, succeeding Rob Robins, who retired.
“There’s always two sides to the story and I think there’s a lot more to this story that we don’t know at this time,” Jacobson said. “The chief has been acting as a chief in a very professional manner ... we have no reason to look at him in any negative manner.”
Neither Willy Ellertson, the president of Wind Lake Fire Co., nor a spokesman for the Dane County firefighters’ union that raised the allegations replied to a request for comment on Tuesday.
The City of Verona commissioned Dale G. Burke of The Riseling Group — a Madison-based consulting firm — to conduct an investigation after Fire Fighters Local 311, a Dane County firefighters’ union, issued a letter on June 5 to the City of Verona. The letter reportedly included allegations of mistreatment perpetrated by Catenacci and a continuous lack of discipline enforced by Verona Chief Joe Giver.
Following is a summary of the alleged misconduct incidents perpetrated by Catenacci that have been detailed in The Riseling Group’s report:
- Catenacci allegedly poked fun of someone for “liking guys.” He later asked a paramedic, who is homosexual, “When did you know you were gay?” followed by several related questions, which the paramedic said made him feel uncomfortable. When interviewed by Burke, Catenacci “stated he was only trying to gain a better understanding of what being gay is. He claims he told (the paramedic), several times and at several points, that he would stop the questioning/conversation at any point if (he) wanted to stop or was uncomfortable.”
- While on shift and shopping at Farm and Fleet on Sept. 19, 2015, Catenacci, who had not yet been promoted to assistant chief, allegedly punched his adult son, who is also a firefighter, in the genitals, causing his son to double over in pain. Both Catenacci and his son said that they have “engaged in this type of horseplay for years” and his son “didn’t give the behavior a second thought.”
- Catenacci allegedly swore at and delivered “four quick jabs” to a firefighter who had been refusing to give Catenacci a wash hose. Witnesses said they didn’t remember the incident and “would not have considered Assistant Chief’s behavior inappropriate or out of line,” according to the report.
- Catenacci allegedly slapped a firefighter intern. The intern told Burke that he didn’t remember the incident, but added that “Catenacci has engaged in similar behavior occasionally with him and others … (and that) the behavior has never hurt or caused him pain and didn’t feel it was meant to demean or humiliate him.” Ted Higgins, the secretary/treasurer for Local 311, told The Journal Times that Catenacci has been repeatedly accused of treating interns less kindly than he does firefighters.
- Catenacci allegedly playfully slapped a firefighter across the face, although the firefighter reported not feeling threatened and that the slap didn’t hurt.
- When a firefighter was late to register for a required online training course, Catenacci reportedly joked, “I’m gonna punch him in the face,” but firefighters who heard Catenacci say that told Burke that they didn’t think the statement was made seriously.
- After a Verona Fire Department officer had a vasectomy, Catenacci is accused of taunting the lieutenant, saying, “Look at how scared you are. You are acting like a 15-year-old virgin going into a store to buy porn for the first time.” This incident was brought to The Riseling Group’s attention by a witness, not the lieutenant himself. The firefighter who underwent the vasectomy told Burke he didn’t remember the incident at all.
- Catenacci repeatedly rubbed the heads of two bald paramedics. One of the paramedics, who filed a complaint, said “this immediately made me feel uncomfortable because there has been a significant history of unwanted touching.” Catenacci admitted to Burke that he had “rubbed the heads of the two men occasionally in a playful manner and had a hard time fathoming how or why someone would take offense.”
International Association of Fire Fighters Local 311, which represents firefighters in Madison and surrounding communities, has called for the resignations or firings of Catenacci and Giver. As of this week, Giver and Catenacci remained in their posts with the Verona Fire Department, although some reprimand has reportedly occurred.
Two weeks ago, Verona Mayor Luke Diaz helped institute a plan to address problems and “enhance the culture and professional direction” in the department, as well as ordering fire personnel to undergo harassment training, Diaz told the Wisconsin State Journal.
Verona City Administrator Jeff Mikorski told The Journal Times that Catenacci has now been disciplined by Giver and that the situation is being regarded as “a personnel issue.”
The Riseling Group reported that 28 different people affiliated with the Verona Fire Department were interviewed during the investigation.
“No one interviewed within the Verona Fire Department took Assistant Chief Catenacci’s statements or alleged inappropriate behavior seriously or attached any ill will to any of his verbal behavior,” the report stated. “Nobody spoke of being threatened or intimidated by him and all of the fire department personnel said they believed that if they asked him to stop any witnessed or experienced unwanted or inappropriate behavior, he would do so … while all stated the behavior did not bother them personally, many admitted that it was ‘probably not appropriate’ conduct for a chief level officer.”
“No one interviewed within the Verona Fire Department took Assistant Chief Catenacci’s statements or alleged inappropriate behavior seriously or attached any ill will to any of his verbal behavior.” Riseling Group report