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