Steve Howard steps in again as Waukesha interim fire chief
Served the same position for about a year from early 2012 to spring 2013
The Waukesha Police and Fire Commission have turned to a familiar person to temporarily lead the Waukesha Fire Department.
Steve Howard, who last served as the interim fire chief when one was needed, was unanimously selected by the PFC on Monday to once again fill the position.
Howard, the assistant chief the last 12 years, held the interim tag for about a year from the time former fire chief Allen LaConte retired in March 2012 to when Jesse Alba was named chief in April 2013.
However, an interim chief was again needed because Alba was recently demoted to the rank of firefighter after the PFC determined he violated department rules relating to code of conduct. Alba has since filed an appeal to the PFC’s decision.
Alba’s demotion came less than six months after he was chosen as the city’s 19th fire chief in the Training Room inside the Fire Department’s Station No. 1. The PFC reconvened in the same room to appoint Howard interim chief.
Ready to fill in
“Well, it’s part of my duty as the assistant chief to fill in the absence,” Howard said after the meeting. “Certainly, every time you do it you have a little bit more experience.”
He said LaConte, who was with the department for almost 35 years, prepared him for leading the department last time.
“It was an opportunity to fill the position through a budget cycle,” Howard said. “A lot of it was things I was exposed to before as an assistant chief. Chief LaConte had prepared people to fill in his absence very well, so I don’t want to say it was an easy transition, but it wasn’t extremely stressful because of the prep work he had done prior.”
While the PFC is moving on in the immediate future with Howard, Alba isn’t giving up just yet.
Alba files appeal
Alba notified Cheryl Gemignani, chairwoman of the Police and Fire Commission, and City Attorney Curt Meitz that he was appealing the PFC’s decision.
According to his appeal filed Oct. 23, Alba, through his attorney, Victor E. Plantinga, is challenging whether there was “just cause” for his demotion.
The PFC will forward the materials from the hearing (court reporter transcripts, briefs and exhibits) to the Waukesha County Circuit Court.
Under state statute Plantinga said the Circuit Court must give this matter priority and schedule a trial within 15 days.
There won’t be live testimony, said Plantinga, who expects the judge to set a briefing schedule to include oral argument in open court.
As he waits for the Circuit Court’s decision, Alba has taken the firefighter position.
The appeal comes after months of investigation and disciplinary hearings regarding Alba asking a former part-time emergency medical services educator to resign as a solution to the difficulties the two were having in getting over the affair they had last year.
After reviewing the investigation and hearing testimony from Alba and witnesses, the PFC filed its Findings of Fact and Determinations Oct. 14.
In the city’s statement of charges, it accused Alba of violating its anti-harassment policy, among other department rules.
However, the PFC concluded Alba did not violate the anti-harassment policy, but noted Alba was unfit to hold a supervisory role.
Alba was put on paid administrative leave Aug. 21. The investigation, which spanned almost five months, cost the city almost $70,000.
It’s unclear what the PFC’s plan is to find Waukesha’s next fire chief.
“That’s all up to the Police and Fire Commission,” Howard said on whether he thinks another national search will begin soon. “I’m just filling the role as interim chief as long as need be.”
Howard, who applied for the position and was in the final six earlier this year, wouldn’t say if he’d be interested in applying again.
“I guess I’d have to make that decision when the time is appropriate,” Howard said.
In the meantime, he will look to provide stability to the chief’s position after months of uncertainty during the Alba investigation.
“I guess the way I see it, my job is to keep moving the department forward, providing the best quality service that we can to the community,” Howard said. “I have experience doing this in the past and will continue to put forth my best effort to maintain the service level for the community.”
Howard added the transition shouldn’t be difficult given that he has been with the department for 25 years and has a strong relationship with his staff.
“The firefighters know me, they know my leadership style,” Howard said. “Again, it’s an interim position. It’s a job to keep us going on the path that we’re going forward.”
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