10-01-2020 Watervliet Fire Chief placed on unpaid leave as Fire Board considers separation terms;


North Elem. School in Watervliet sees a COVID-19 closure

By Joshua Coffin North Elementary School in Watervliet is closed for three days from Wednesday, Sept. 30 through Friday, Oct. 2 due to a COVID-19 case within the school. On September 29, 2020, Watervliet’s Superintendent Ric Seager sent out a letter, also made available on Watervliet School’s website and Facebook page, to parents informing them that a teacher at North School has tested positive for COVID-19. In response to the diagnosis, the school is closed for the three days. The students attending North School in person will be moved to remote learning for those three days. Though the Berrien County Health Department did not mandate a school closure, Watervliet administration chose to err on the side of caution. During the three day school closure, the Health Department will have the time to determine the intensity of risk for community spread at the school through contact tracing. The custodial and maintenance teams will have the opportunity to deeply clean and sanitize the building without teachers and students present. The school will also need to cover the responsibilities of staff members who will be in quarantine due to contact and find substitutes for them for the time being. The letter states that the Berrien County Health Department is currently in the process of taking on the issue. “Following protocols established by the various state and federal agencies, and ensconced in our district Return To Learn Plan, we are working closely with BCHD to help begin contact-tracing. BCHD will be contacting any individuals identified as in close contact (defined as within 6’ of an infected person for more than 15 minutes) with the infected teacher.” Those who were in close contact with the teacher will be contacted by the Health Department and are expected to quarantine for 14 days. Also included in the superintendent’s letter was a reminder, in accordance with their Return to Learn Plan and health officials, that if a student displays any COVID-19 symptoms including new loss of taste or smell, a temperature of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, sore throat, an uncontrolled cough that causes difficulty breathing, onset of a severe headache, diarrhea and/or vomiting or unusual belly pain to remain home to avoid the spreading of the virus. Should a student be placed in quarantine experiencing the symptoms, a negative COVID-19 test must be provided allowing the student to return to school in person. In the absence of a negative test, the student will be excluded from Watervliet Public Schools for at least 10 days from the start of the symptom. It is also encouraged to continue all COVID-19 health and safety recommendations from the Berrien County Health Department and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, including washing your hands often for 20 second periods, using hand sanitizer that contains 70% alcohol, avoiding contact with those who are sick, socially distancing yourselves six feet from one another, wearing face masks, covering coughs or sneezes, and cleaning frequently used objects and surfaces daily. Watervliet Public Schools, the Berrien County Health Department, Berrien RESA, and other agencies will continue to monitor the current situation. The school’s goal is to return to in-person learning for all on-site students on Monday, Oct. 5, 2020. If this changes, there will be updates sent via the school’s Messenger, Facebook, and on their website.

Watervliet Fire Chief placed on unpaid leave as Fire Board considers separation terms

By Annette Christie A special Watervliet Joint Fire Board meeting was held on Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020 at 6:00 p.m., virtually, with the primary purpose as posted was to consider and potentially take action on a public comment policy, enter into a closed session regarding a confidential written legal opinion, and potentially take action based upon that opinion. The first action taken by the board was to approve a public comment policy. Based on that, public comments were held without anyone addressing them. The board went into a discussion about a timeline for processing complaints regarding the Watervliet Fire Chief. Fire Board member Joe Stepich of Watervliet Charter Township offered this process: Have an outside investigator review complaints about department administration, provide a summary report to Chief Dan Jones, and allow him to respond in a special meeting of the board at the end of October. The concept of the timeline was approved, followed by another motion to place Jones on unpaid administrative leave until the investigation is completed. The Fire Board went into closed session to discuss a legal opinion from their legal counsel. At 7:36 p.m., when they returned to open session, Stepich made the motion authorizing the board chair, Deane Fizzell, to work with legal counsel to present a separation term as discussed with legal counsel, referring to the closed session. Watervliet Mayor Dave Brinker was the lone no vote on that motion. Melanie Marvin, representing Watervliet City, asked who was going to address the “laundry list” of things that needed to be addressed with the Chief sooner than later. Stepich suggested that the Chair should be the one to do that. Fizzell agreed. Watervliet City Manager Tyler Dotson asked the board to address who should be consulted if the city needs to address who is in charge during this time when the Chief is on leave. Similarly to when the Chief was just on paid administrative leave through Sept. 15, Bill Whitney will be the Officer in Charge for the time being. Fire Board Chairman Fizzell assured residents that the fire department is staffed and ready to respond to any fire where the department is needed. This follows a series of events going back to August. Chief Dan Jones had been placed on paid administrative leave following a special meeting of the Fire Board on Aug. 27, 2020. In addition to Jones, 2nd Lt. Justin Scheetz was also placed on paid administrative leave. As the two each had a closed session with the Fire Board, the details of what may have occurred with the two or between the two were unknown however, the minutes of that meeting reflect that it was a personnel matter. At the Fire Board’s next meeting held on Sept. 15, 2020, both individuals were re-instated following the announcement that a written warning would be placed in each of their personnel files. This did not come without dissent. At one point in that meeting, Fire Board member Melanie Marvin (representing the City of Watervliet), made a motion that as the Fire Board continues to review policies, the handbook, employment agreements and the agreement that ties the Fire Board together, that Jones should remain on administrative leave. Watervliet City Mayor Dave Brinker supported the motion however, it failed, as Watervliet Charter Township representatives Joe Stepich and Patt Bambrick and at-large member Deane Fizzell voted no. It appeared that recent happenings had given the Fire Board some reason to believe that it is time to visit all of those governing documents and update and revise them as needed including payroll and administrative processes for the department. Following that meeting, a special meeting of the Fire Board was called on Friday, Sept. 18, 2020. While there was further discussion about the Chief’s status and some firefighters expressed some concerns during public comments, no action was taken by the Fire Board. Fourteen members of the Watervliet Joint Fire Department took their concerns to the Watervliet Charter Township Board at their Sept. 21, 2020 meeting, in the form of communication. In the letter, the authors of the letter stated that it was a letter of official notice to inform them that a majority vote of ‘No Confidence’ in the Chief was taken. They stated that recent actions with the Chief have left them with no other ethical recourse. They alluded to an alleged physical altercation with an employee involving Jones, several alleged verbal altercations in recent months with residents and complaints about his behavior, including from neighboring departments’ personnel. Another instance referenced in the letter referred to a recent Fire Board meeting where an employee spoke up but was later allegedly threatened by the Chief. The firefighters noted that things are getting progressively worse the longer he is left in charge and closed the letter stating that “in a profession where every call can be life and death for us or our citizens, you have to be able to rely on the people and equipment you work with. Honor and integrity are the backbone of the fire service and when the trust has been broken in so many ways it cannot be repaired. Chief Jones has lost the ability to lead this department.” While a lengthy discussion was held and it was even discussed that Bambrick and Brinker would be meeting with Jones, it is uncertain whether that occurred or not and a special fire board meeting that was on tap for last Friday night, did not happen. Fizzell said that pending no immediate matters, the next Fire Board meeting would be held on Oct. 20, 2020 at 7:00 p.m. with the format to be determined depending on the Governor’s ordered status for the State and what is allowed for in-person meetings.

Hartford woman arrested in fatal car accident

The driver that caused a multi-vehicle crash on M-140 in Covert Township that claimed the life of a seven-year-old boy has been charged. Ashley Beebe of Hartford had her first appearance in Seventh District Court and remains in the Van Buren County Jail. The Covert Police Department responded to the accident at the 28th Street and M-140 intersection in Van Buren County. Around 2:00 p.m., a person driving a Buick Regal ran the stop sign and struck a northbound Saturn VUE on M-140. The impact of the crash caused the Saturn to strike another vehicle, one that was traveling southbound on M-140. There were two passengers in the Saturn, the adult driver, Carolina Sanchez, and her child. Damian Sanchez Enriquez, 7, was pronounced dead at the scene. The driver was taken to a local hospital and was listed in stable condition. Beebe was charged with reckless driving causing death, operating a vehicle with a revoked or suspended license causing death, reckless driving causing serious impairment of body function, and operating a vehicle with a revoked or suspended license causing injury. Her next court date is at the end of September. Stealing political signs is a crime Coloma Charter Township Police Chief Wes Smigielski noted it has been reported that there have been a lot of political signs stolen over the last week. The department would like to remind all citizens that stealing political signs is a misdemeanor in Michigan and if caught, prosecution will be sought. On Thursday, Sept. 24, 2020, Alexander Horton was arrested on Huckaba Lane in Watervliet Township. Horton was arrested on several outstanding felony warrants and was on the run from the police for several months. Horton was taken into custody without incident and was lodged in the Berrien County Jail.

Bowling alleys & theaters allowed reopening; COVID-19 State of Emergency extended

By Jon Bisnett

On the heels of a relatively quiet week in COVID-19 news, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s pen was back at work with new Executive Orders reopening theaters and bowling alleys, while at the same time tightening expectations on elementary students; all while Whitmer extended the Michigan State of Emergency through Oct. 27.

Beginning as soon as Oct. 9, a large number of previously closed businesses are allowed to reopen across the state, including indoor theaters, cinemas, performance venues, arcades, bingo halls, bowling centers, indoor climbing facilities, trampoline parks, and more.

Under Executive Order 2020-183, instead of being limited to 10 people, non-residential indoor gatherings and events now must limit attendance to 20 people per 1,000 square feet or 20 percent of fixed seating capacity, with a maximum of 500 people in Michigan’s largest venues.

Regions 6 and 8 are subject to the same rules covered in the revised MI Safe Start order, except non-residential indoor venues may allow up to 25 people per 1,000 square feet or 25 percent of fixed seating capacity, with a maximum of 500 people in the regions’ largest venues.

Non-residential indoor venues must require a face covering.

Schools

Executive Order 2020-185 now requires all students in grades kindergarten and up in regions 1-5 and 7 to wear a face covering in classrooms.

The Michigan High School Athletic Association is reviewing the latest EOs regarding the effect on high school sports fans, with an announcement expected.

Locally, there is confirmation that Watervliet North Elementary will close through the weekend, reopening Monday, Oct. 5 following notification of a teacher who tested positive for COVID-19. Hartford reports “So far, so good” and no news from Coloma Schools. (See separate story for more information on Watervliet North School closure.)

Just one week after the Big 10 Conference reinstated fall sports, Notre Dame began with a canceled practice which led the Fighting Irish to a canceled game all due to COVID-19.

University of Michigan, Michigan State and Wayne State have all ceased in-person instruction and gone to the safety of online curriculum after multiple outbreaks among students and staff. Michigan hopes to return, while MSU and Wayne State plan to stay online only through the end of the calendar year.

Dinner and a movie

With theaters and entertainment venues reopening, it bears to remind readers to support local venues and restaurants. The word on the street has good things to say about the new Local 3 Grill & Tap in downtown Watervliet, while in Hartford the Panel Room is back up and running following closure for some remodeling.

National and international

Late reports are coming in of a coronavirus outbreak in the NFL among the Tennessee Titans with three players and five staffers which may affect the team’s ability to answer the call this Sunday.

Bad news comes out of Orlando as Disney announced on Tuesday that it will lay off some 28,000 workers at Disney stores and theme parks across the country. Disney officials reported its second-quarter profit dropped 91%, down from $5.4 billion just one year earlier, forcing the layoffs.

Speaking globally, this week the country of Brazil, recognized as the 3rd most infected in the world, in an unprecedented move officials have delayed Carnival 2021. The festival draws millions of party goers along with their tourist dollars to Rio de Janeiro just before lent. None the less, the samba line will have to wait until organizers receive word to proceed.

To borrow a phrase from CBS anchor Norah O’Donnell, “Stay positive and test negative.”