Wis. chief responds to hostile work environment allegations

By Adam Rogan
The Journal Times

WIND LAKE, Wis. — The new fire chief at the Wind Lake Volunteer Fire Company, Don Catenacci, expects to stay in his current position despite allegations of assault and misconduct that have been alleged against him in Verona.

Catenacci became Wind Lake’s part-time fire chief in September. He concurrently serves as the assistant chief at the Verona Fire Department in Dane County, which is also a part-time position. He was hired to work 20 hours a week for Wind Lake, which has a roster of 13 volunteers, one full-time firefighter who staffs the station Monday-Friday, and part-time affiliate emergency members — recent graduates of technical college fire and EMS training programs — who augment the department’s staffing.

A firefighters union in Dane County, Fire Fighters Local 311, has accused Catenacci of punching male firefighters in the crotch, hitting firefighters and emergency medical services employees, threatening to hurt others if they didn’t do what he said, mocking bald men, and making other unwanted contact with his coworkers, according to Local 311 Secretary/Treasurer Ted Higgins.

Catenacci said the allegations are false. “I have never punched or assaulted anyone,” he told The Journal Times on Thursday.

Regardless, Local 311 is calling for the resignations of Catenacci and his superior in Verona, Chief Joe Givers.

As of Thursday, both Catenacci and Givers remain on the Verona Fire Department staff and have not been suspended, according to Verona City Administrator Jeff Mikorski. Catenacci also remains in place as fire chief in Wind Lake.

“As far as what’s going on here in Wind Lake, it (the accusation) has no effect. I’m still doing my job here,” Catenacci said. “There have been no problems or incidents or complaints against me here.”

Willy Ellertson, the president of the Wind Lake Volunteer Fire Company, did not reply to Thursday requests for comment. Jean Jacobson, the town chair in Norway, which contracts with Wind Lake Fire for emergency services, could not be reached for comment on Thursday.

Two reports

The City of Verona hired The Riseling Group, a Madison-based consulting firm, to investigate the Verona Fire Department after firefighters and Local 311 raised concerns earlier this year regarding Catenacci’s behavior and general lack of leadership within the department.

The Riseling Group completed two reports, according to Mikorski, although one of them has not been released.

That report details the specific allegations against Catenacci, Mikorski said.

Because of the personal allegations against Catenacci, he has been granted until Nov. 25 to either approve of the report’s publication or to initiate legal proceedings to keep The Riseling Group’s findings sealed, according to Mikorski.

As of Thursday afternoon, no court proceedings have begun, Mikorski said.

The report that has been released consists of four pages. It details firefighters’ complaints about what “appears to be a complete lack of discipline” in the Verona Fire Department, and other concerns including little transparency, underutilized resources and low morale.

Catenacci is never mentioned directly in that report.

‘Goofing around’

Higgins claims that Catenacci is the perpetrator of “obnoxious roughhousing,” and has been assaulting firefighters since at least 2015. He believes that Chief Givers has been receiving complaints regarding Catenacci’s behavior for years, but never issued any punishment against his assistant chief.

“I think Don (Catenacci) thought he was goofing around … but it (the contact) was unwanted,” Higgins said.

Givers has been Verona’s chief since January 2011, and Catenacci has worked for the department since October 2014. Catenacci was born in Illinois but has mostly lived in the Village of Wyocena, 13 miles east of Portage, since the age of 12. He continues to reside there.

Catenacci is a lifelong firefighter. He has held the positions of assistant chief and chief in Wyocena and worked as a full-time firefighter for the City of Wauwatosa before becoming an assistant chief in Verona.

Catenacci is also a fire training instructor at Madison Area Technical College.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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