One year later, former Waukesha Fire Chief Jesse Alba discusses life after demotion

Todd Ponath
Former Waukesha Fire Chief Jesse Alba and his wife Vickie make their way out of the Common Council Chambers last year after one of Alba’s disciplinary hearings. Alba, demoted last year for violating department rules, is still fighting to get his job back as chief.
Published on: 9/24/2014

Sitting alongside his two attorneys, Jesse Alba cracked a couple of smiles while he waited for a judge to enter the courtroom last week.

But behind that smile is a man whose personal and professional career has been rocked and turned upside down over the last two years.

In a matter of months, he lost his job as Waukesha's fire chief.

Details of a sexual affair were revealed in the most public way.

And he has had to fight every day to regain the trust of his friends and family, especially his wife, Vickie.

He says he has been humbled by it all.

"It's been the hardest year of my professional career," said Alba, who reflected on the last year and a half in a 20-minute interview hours after his most recent appearance at the Waukesha County Courthouse last week.

Alba's request to get his job back as chief was denied by Waukesha County Circuit Court Judge Lee S. Dreyfus on Wednesday, Sept. 24. But Dreyfus did say that Alba is still entitled to a new disciplinary hearing, giving him a chance at regaining his old position — one that he only held for about six months, from mid-April 2013 to mid-October 2013.

That has been his and his attorney's goal since the Police and Fire Commission demoted him to the role of firefighter last year for violating department rules.

Revisiting the case

The details of his case are well documented.

Alba developed a romantic attraction to a part-time emergency medical services employee while he was the assistant chief more than two years ago. The two had a consensual sexual relationship.

As Alba sought the fire chief post during spring 2013, Alba asked the woman on two occasions if she would consider resigning as a "solution" to the difficulties both were having in getting past the affair.

The city's Human Resources Department was soon notified about Alba's conduct and, shortly after, an investigation began. Jeff Scrima, the city's mayor at the time, called for Alba's firing during a news conference.

Less than four months into his tenure Alba was placed on administrative leave after an investigation alleged that he violated multiple city and department rules and the anti-harassment policy.

Finally, after subsequent disciplinary hearings at City Hall that resembled a court setting, where witnesses were called to speak, the Police and Fire Commission determined Alba was unfit for a chief's role, despite concluding he did not violate the anti-harassment policy.

He was demoted to firefighter, a sudden fall for someone who worked his entire career to become fire chief.

After effects

Alba hasn't talked publicly much since being demoted.

"It would have done me no good or served no purpose spouting off about the organization or the city," Alba said. "I'm at a crossroads now, but for me I've never had any trouble sharing what happened."

Likewise, since that time, he hasn't communicated with the woman, who despite being subpoenaed, did not testify during the disciplinary hearings. She resigned shortly after the investigation began last year.

While losing the chief post has devastated him, Alba said returning to the Waukesha Fire Department has been a kind of safe haven.

"I've enjoyed my time back on the line," said Alba, who added some of his now co-workers joke with him that they are part of an "Undercover Boss" TV episode. "I don't think I was out of touch with the great work that the firefighters do, but it gives me a new appreciation for them when I get my position back."

Supportive groups

Alba added: "I'm fortunate to have the support from my co-workers. I received almost no negative feedback. I had and still have many great relationships."

When the investigation was taking place last year, city officials said morale was low within the department. But that has now changed.

"Things are going well," Acting Fire Chief Steve Howard said of Alba and the department. "Everyone is acting very professionally."

Alba said he hasn't been treated any differently than before.

"They found out that a lot of what I was accused of was hearsay and that comments weren't exactly true," Alba said. "Obviously, what I did was not a good thing, but I can't put into words how great it has been to have them embrace me."

He feels the same way about his family.

"They're my greatest inspiration," Alba said regarding his two children and wife, who has been with him at every hearing. "Their love means everything to me. But just as it's been difficult professionally, it hasn't been easy personally.

"I just want to be the best that I can, and that's why I continue to seek truth and justice."

Continuing the fight

Victor E. Plantinga, Alba's attorney, said that's why they are going to appeal Dreyfus' decision and send this matter to the Wisconsin Court of Appeals, which could take between one and two years.

"We need to find a venue where they will exam the facts," Alba said. "It's going to take some time and the cost is going to be extraordinary."

Plantinga calls this "an unusual case."

"The statute doesn't address our situation," Plantinga said. "One of the disciplinary charges had to deal with lack of candor in the interview, and the judge found that was problematic because (the PFC members) are also the witnesses and then they are also serving as the role in determining what the facts are based on information they had outside of the hearing. So that was the due process violation."

Unlike the last hearing, in which he said new commissioners needed to be chosen, Dreyfus said last week the same commissioners who were part of the disciplinary hearing last year can now be part of a new hearing.

That suits the city.

"There's no way for this commission to delicate responsibilities to another," said Alan Levy, who is serving as the city's attorney on this matter.

But Dreyfus said the charges related to not being truthful regarding the affair when he was interviewed for the chief's position in early 2013 would be omitted.

"I'm a little surprised by the decision because he made it clear in June that it would be before different commissioners," Alba said. "My only concern is whether they will be able to separate themselves and give a fair and impartial hearing."

Staying in Waukesha

During this ordeal, Alba said he never thought about leaving the department.

"The bottom line is that this current commission thought I was the most qualified to do this job" before the issues surrounding his affair become public, Alba said. "I don't want to be chief anywhere else. It would have been easy to run away, but this is where I cut my teeth. I worked every position here, and this organization means a lot to me."

Looking back, he has regrets about his behavior.

"Obviously, I wish the whole situation didn't happen," Alba said. "I made an error in judgment. But I also wish more patience was exercised earlier in the process and this could have saved us a lot of energy. That wasn't the case."