Waukesha officials file complaint against fire chief after he doesn't resign

Christopher Kuhagen
Waukesha Fire Chief Jesse Alba is under investigation by the city of Waukesha.
Published on: 7/30/2013

Jesse Alba worked his entire career for this day.

On April 18, 2013 the Waukesha Police and Fire Commission named Alba the city's new fire chief after an extensive search. Smiles were all around the second-floor room at the Fire Station 1 building after the commission tabbed the man who would lead the department into the future.

It looked like a perfect fit, as Alba paved out a career similar to his predecessor, Allen LaConte, who retired in March 2012 after almost 35 years with the city. Alba was in his 23rd year with the Waukesha Fire Department and finally reached the top of the totem pole.

When Alba started his new position as chief, he was looking forward to a long stay, while building upon the tradition of the department and city, one that he has called home with his wife and two children.

"I'm humbled by the opportunity and couldn't be more pleased," Alba said the day after he was named chief.

But four months after that joyous moment, could it all be over for Alba?

Soon enough, Alba, the city's homegrown selection, will find the answer to that question as he is set to face the same commission who hired him inside Station 1.

This time, however, these individuals could fire him.

This comes as a result of the recently completed investigation that looked into alleged violations of city policy by Alba, City Administrator Ed Henschel said last week.

Henschel said the investigation revealed serious enough evidence for Mayor Jeff Scrima and Henschel to seek Alba's resignation.

After Alba did not accept the resignation, a formal complaint against Alba was sent to members of the Police and Fire Commission last week. The commission, per state statute, will hold a hearing to decide Alba's fate.

Henchel said, as of Monday, the hearing has not been scheduled. The commission's hearing must take place between 10 and 30 days after the complaint was filed.

"We are extremely saddened regarding this situation," Scrima said in a statement.

Investigation begins

The investigation started in early June, less than two months after Alba was named fire chief, Henschel said.

Henschel said after the investigation was finished, he and Scrima met with Alba on July 3 and presented the investigator's report. The investigation, which Henschel said has cost the city between $3,000 and $4,000, was conducted by an independent third party.

"We listened to his side of the story," Henschel said. "I didn't know how he was going to react. I talked to him a couple times on resigning, but he has clearly stated he has no intention of doing that.

"But interestingly he has not denied the facts of the investigation, although he presented alternative facts supporting his position."

Seeking his resignation

During their meeting with Alba, Henschel and Scrima then asked for his resignation. When asked if a temporary suspension or probation could have been sufficient, Henschel said the allegations warrant a resignation.

And they told Alba that if he did not resign they would file a complaint within five days. Once Alba did not resign, they prepared the complaint.

Waukesha Now has filed an open records request on the details of the complaint. It was scheduled to be released on Wednesday, after the Now press deadline (check Waukeshanow.com for a new story on the complaint).

Henschel said the matter was brought to his attention by the city's Human Resources Department a little more than a month after Alba's appointment.

"I was extremely surprised," Henschel said about the complaint.

Looking ahead to hearing

Alba, who could have voluntarily released the complaint, did not return a message for comment.

However, his attorney, Victor E. Plantinga of Rose/deJong Attorneys at Law in Milwaukee, provided a statement last week in regard to the case against Alba. He said his client received the statement of charges and was aware of the investigation that led up to the filing of charges.

"Mr. Alba provided truthful information to the investigator and city officials that discredited the witness statements that are being used against him," Plantinga said. "Regrettably, none of that information is reflected in the investigation report or in the statement of charges.

"Mr. Alba looks forward to a hearing where he can present this evidence to the commission."

Henschel, who added the violations were not criminal, did say that the alleged employment violation occurred before Alba was named chief.

"It occurred earlier this year," Henschel said. "And it was employment related."

The city's finance committee looks to hire local attorney Stan Riffle to act as special counsel for the city at $250 per hour. The city has sought an outside attorney because the city attorney is representing the Police and Fire Commission.

Quick stay?

If Alba, Waukesha's 19th fire chief, is released, it will mark the shortest stint for a Waukesha chief.

Outside of Fire Chief Bert Lockerman, who only spent one year as chief from July 1966-July 1967, in the last 100 years.

Peter Wild, the first paid fire chief served for 35 years (1910-45), Emery Downie for 21 (1945-66), Glen Land for 11 (1967-78), Fred Baumgart for six (1978-84), Jerome Seidl for seven (1984-91), Robert Stedman for 10 (1991-2001) and LaConte for 11 (2001-12).

Alba, who started with the department in 1986, worked under Seidl, Stedman and LaConte. Before being chief, Alba was the assistant chief of operations for two years. It was at the end of this two-year period where the alleged violations occurred.

From 2004-11, Alba was Waukesha's deputy chief of training and emergency medical services after having a four-year run with the City of Brookfield as a deputy chief/shift commander from 2000-04. He was a firefighter/equipment operator/lieutenant with the Waukesha Fire Department from 1986-2000.

Alba rose to top

Ready to take his career to the next level, Alba beat out close to 50 candidates who applied for the fire chief position when the application process began earlier this year.

The search was on hold for a number of months after the Common Council and Police and Fire Commission initially disputed about how the search should take place.

Members of the Common Council voted against spending for a search firm saying there were qualified candidates from within the department, while the commission said that to find the best candidate and for the legal process to be accurate, a search firm was needed.

As a result, the process stalled until last November when a majority of the Common Council finally approved to enter into an agreement with the Illinois-based search firm, Voorhees Associates. It cost about $16,000 for Voorhees' services.

After reviewing résumés and applications, Voorhees helped the Police and Fire Commission narrow its search to four finalists in April. Along with Alba, the others were Waukesha's Battalion Chief Joseph Hoffman, City of Kenosha Fire Department Battalion Chief Matthew Haerter and Village of Bolingbrook, Ill., Fire Chief David Litton.

Assistant Fire Chief Steve Howard was Waukesha's interim fire chief in the year between LaConte's retirement and Alba's appointment. Howard also applied for the chief's position and was one of the top six candidates, but did not make the final cut.

Henschel disappointed

Henschel said Alba's violation did not come up during the interview process, which was done by the Waukesha Police and Fire Commission, a five-member group of volunteer citizens.

When asked why the Police and Fire Commission did not find anything relating to the alleged violation during the interview process, Henschel replied, "One would think (it would have come up)."

Henschel added while "many fire departments, in general, are a very close-knit family" the alleged violations were employment related.

"But nothing was said until too late," Henschel said. "That's really unfortunate."