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Former fire chief Gray discusses termination

The past few weeks have been a whirlwind for the city, and specifically the fire department, as questions of whether or not Will Gray was still employed as that department’s chief spread through town.

That question was answered last week when the city issued a statement saying that, effective April 4, Gray was no longer employed by the city.

Earlier this week, Gray sat down with the Review to discuss his termination, during which time he provided a time frame, to the best of his recollection, as to the events that led to his termination.

Walton accused of interference

Gray said that in March 2023, soon after returning from a conference where the fire department was awarded with international fire accreditation, “Councilman Steve Walton began interfering with the daily operations of the fire department, in my opinion. His son, a captain with the fire department, was assigned to the administration as the training captain. When he was promoted to that position, he was told he would need to remain for 2 ½ years. The firefighters can rotate positions every two years, if they desire. We were six months from a rotation, and I explained that we did not want him to rotate as soon as he was up to speed with the new position. At the time he agreed. About a year or so later, I had promoted another captain and he wanted to return to the operations. He was told he made a commitment and needed to honor that. He went to the city manager and complained. As I recall, Councilman Walton visited with City Manager Taylour Tedder as well, and I soon received a call telling me that I should move Capt. Walton as he desired.”

Gray said the most recent issue began when a few members of the fire department decided they did not agree with the directive to attend hazardous materials technician training in Colorado. The training was determined to be needed based on the Community Risk Assessment that had demonstrated there was a hazmat risk within the community. The findings resulted in a strategic plan goal that has been in place for the past few years. About a dozen members had attended the national hazmat school that is federally funded through the state of Nevada and FEMA. The only cost to the city was shift coverage. All expenses are covered by the federal government. Most of the returning firefighters had asked to attend the advanced hazmat courses in the future, if available.

“In January, one of the firefighters told the training captain that he would not be going,” Gray said. “This was not acceptable, and I pushed back. The IAFF local president met with the deputy chief and me and expressed their concern. He was told they needed to attend the class. The president said we needed a local option for those that did not want to go to the national school. I explained that the national school was one of the best in the country and we could not do it in-house. I also explained that the department has experienced a 100% pass rate on the required state certification testing for those that attended in the Colorado school.”

Annual evaluation

On Feb. 13, Gray had his monthly meeting with Tedder, during which time he was given his annual evaluation.

“It was one of the best I have received in my four years with the city,” Gray said. “Taylour had given me top ratings on my leadership and communications, as well as many others and no rating lower than above average.”

Staff receives a grade of one being the lowest to five being the highest in a variety of categories. Gray received a 5 for communication, customer focus, leadership, job knowledge, personal behavior and planning and organization. He received fours for decision making/problem solving as well as quality and quantity of work.

Unflattering resignation letter

In early March of this year, following his resignation, fire analyst Walter West sent a harshly-worded letter to all firefighters (except Gray), the city manager, the city council, and some other department heads.

“One of the most pressing concerns I wish to address is our department’s hostile workplace environment,” West wrote in his resignation letter, which he provided to the Review. “Chief Gray’s leadership style has exacerbated this issue, which has fostered an atmosphere of disconnection and discontent among personnel.”

West went on to write, “In addition to interpersonal challenges, there have been significant discrepancies between the stated mission of the department and the practical implementation of job duties. For example, I was tasked with spearheading the development of a community paramedic program—a project I wholeheartedly believed in and invested considerable time and effort into. However, despite my diligent work on this initiative, it was dismissed with little consideration. Furthermore, the absence of a genuine team atmosphere is exacerbated by Chief Gray’s rigid decision-making process and apparent unwillingness to consider alternative perspectives.”

Regarding the letter, Gray said, “This was a shock to me and something I wanted to better understand. My initial action was to create an anonymous survey to get people’s feedback. After I read a few, I saw that some of the people were using this as an opportunity to say mean-spirited things and not meeting the intent. I took the survey down and decided to instead sit down with each member of the department. Over that week, I spent about 35 hours meeting with 18 firefighters. All but one had a lot to offer. One person refused to speak with me at all. After trying to visit with him, I told him he was welcome to leave since he refused to say a single word. The remaining 17 firefighters offered a lot of good feedback. There were three common concerns that were easily addressed the following week. Some of the other comments were for things I had not heard prior to these meetings. Most of the firefighters thanked me for taking the time to visit with them.”

Overtime

Another issue that had arisen was that of overtime.

Capt. Nigel Walton, son of Steve Walton, presented a document to Tedder with several complaints and accusations that were never investigated or supported by any evidence, Gray said. Tedder called Gray after and shared the document from Capt. Walton. Among the complaints was that the firefighters should get paid more money if they have to perform hazmat technician-level work, and that he did not want the three new firefighters that Gray had advocated for to reduce overtime, unless the city would increase the daily minimum staffing to eight firefighters.

“While this would be nice, the city does not currently have a minimum staffing standard and the overtime costs and forced overtime would have significantly increased,” Gray said. “The city was averaging about $475,000 in overtime over the last few years. With staffing as Capt. Walton was advocating for, it would have likely exceeded $550,000 a year and the firefighters would experience more mandatory overtime.”

“On March 11, I worked remotely as I was ill and there were city council briefings. I was able to log-in remotely and participate in them. Following the briefings, Taylour told me he met with Councilman Walton. He told me that Walton presented a near identical list of demands and complaints that his son had. In my opinion this was in violation of NRS 281, as an elected official is not allowed to use their position to influence to benefit family or friends.”

Complaint filed

On April 4, Gray filed a complaint with the Nevada Commission on Ethics against Councilman Walton. An article on that complaint will appear in the April 25 edition of the Review. When contacted by the Review Monday regarding the ethics complaint, Walton later sent an email with his comments. In it he stated, “I am told that Mr. Gray has filed a complaint with the Nevada Commission on Ethics alleging some type of wrongdoing on my part. I have not seen the complaint and therefore cannot answer as to its contents. I have considered Will and Shannon (Gray’s wife) to be good friends since they have moved here, and still do.

“Whatever ethics violation allegations that are made against me in relation to Mr. Grays’s employment, or any other related topics, are absolutely without merit and are unsubstantiated. Any decisions on the employment status of Mr. Gray, or the operations of the fire department, have been exclusively between Mr. Gray and his supervisor, the city manager.

“I have, and continue to precisely follow the city charter, the city ordinances, and standards of ethics in my capacity as a city council member. I am focused on the mission, vision, and values of the city and in honorably representing the citizens of our community. I look forward to receiving the finding of the Ethics Commission and being cleared of all allegations.”

In regard to Gray’s termination, Tedder said, “The city does not comment on personnel matters.”

Concerning the ethics complaint filed against Walton, Tedder said, “Council Member Walton was not involved with and did not influence city management decisions surrounding Will Gray’s departure from the city.”

Despite this being the second fire chief to depart within the last four years, Tedder added, “Boulder City is a great place to live and work, the city is confident that it will find a well-qualified and experienced individual to fill the role of fire chief in the coming months.”

On April 1, Gray was given a draft separation agreement, “but it was nothing like he had committed to trying to accomplish” in previous discussions with Tedder, he said. “In fact, the agreement offered to pay my sick leave, about $12,000, in addition to a $5,000 amount for me signing an NDA that said I could never share anything that had occurred. It also said I could not speak poorly of the city council or any city staff. I told him this was nowhere near what he had discussed.

“When I got home and reviewed the agreement, it was worse than I thought. It was written to give me a less-than-favorable reference, forbid me from working with anyone I had met through the city, which as I understood it would be anyone in Nevada, for a year, and the no-disparagement agreement. I texted Taylour and told him I appreciated the meeting but that I was disappointed as it was nowhere near what he had promised. I told him I would prefer to just take the money that was owed to me from my vacation and be free to file a state ethics complaint against Councilman Steve Walton, speak with whoever I chose, and visit with an attorney. Taylour quickly called me and told me this was only the start of negotiations.”

Final day

On the morning of April 4, Gray went in to sign the agreement that he said Tedder had committed to. When Tedder and Administrative Services Director Bryce Boldt arrived and sat down, “Taylour started to explain why we were there,” Gray said. “Of course, I knew why we were there as I had been dealing with this for about three weeks at this point. Taylour explained that I had done great things for the city but that he has recently noticed some issues with my leadership. I stopped him and asked if that was why he just gave me a glowing annual evaluation to go with my three others that I had received during my employment here. He said I pushed back when he had told me to change the job descriptions. He also quickly added that Councilman Walton had not directed him in any way regarding the fire department. I told him he knew that was not true and that he had shared that Councilman Walton had been doing it for about a year.”

During that meeting, Gray said he was given three options:

1) Resign and get his vacation pay as required.

2) Sign a settlement offer, including to never speak about what had occurred, and the city would pay him $5,000 that day and pay out his sick leave over 12-monthly payments in addition to his vacation pay. They also said they would no longer be able to offer the $30,500 in the 457 deferred-compensation fund and that the two months of administrative leave that he says Tedder originally offered was off the table as well.

3) Be terminated and get his vacation pay as required.

“I told Taylour I would not sign away my freedom to speak of what I felt was unethical behavior for $5,000,” he said. “He quickly said it was for $12,000. Either way, I told him I would not sign that. He said that I could just resign then. I told him I would not resign and that they should just terminate me if that is what they wanted to do. Taylour tried to get me to resign a few more times. Bryce even suggested that I could verbally resign. I said I would not do that. So, Bryce said they would just consider it a termination. I thanked them and walked out of the conference room.”

He went home and then filed the state ethics complaint against Steve Walton.

“I believe he is in violation with NRS as an elected official using his office to influence the fire department to benefit a relative,” Gray said of Walton. “He also appears to be violating the state nepotism guidelines,” Gray said. “The state reached out for additional details, and I am currently waiting to hear back from them. I have also reached out to an attorney for legal advice moving forward.”

Gray said he never received a termination letter, but acknowledged that according to the city, no letter is required.

Moving forward, Gray said he plans to do some consulting work while enjoying retirement in Colorado while he and his wife spend time with their children and grandchildren. He said he will miss the friends they have made here, specifically many of those who are fellow members of the Sunrise Rotary. He was recently named president of the Boulder City Hospital board of directors. He recently resigned from that position.

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