SMITHS STATION, Ala. (WRBL) – This weekend a 22-page anonymous report entitled “Smiths Station Fire Protection District (SSFPD) Complaints” was shared on several east Alabama social media sites. Overall, the document paints a picture of a troubled organization plagued by alleged misconduct, mismanagement of funds, and ethical concerns.
You can read the entire document here:
It’s important to note these are all allegations at this time.
The complaint focuses on the SSFPD Board of Directors, Fire Chief Joseph Walden, (newly appointed) Deputy Chief Brad Wade, Assistant Chief Clint Knox, and Captain Blake Green. On Tuesday, September 5th, four days after the document was published to social media, longtime Smiths Station Fire Chief Joe Walden announced his resignation. WRBL reached out to Walden for a comment, he didn’t have one at this time. Capital Blake Green, who is also named in the complaint, is the acting chief. WRBL also called the fire department and left messages for Captain Green, Assistant Chief Knox and Deputy Chief Wade, Chief Walden’s wife who acted as the Corporate Secretary, and her friend who was hired to do billing. The individual we spoke with on the phone Wednesday says they are not able to make a comment at this time pending advice from the department’s attorney. WRBL requested a callback from the attorney.
“It is unfortunate for us, that the SSFPD Board of Directors, Fire Chief Joseph Walden, (newly appointed) Deputy Chief Brad Wade, Assistant Chief Clint Knox, and Captain Blake Green, who are primarily responsible for running this great organization don’t incorporate the morals and values needed to effectively run this organization without violating the laws and codes of Alabama and conducting themselves in a manner that doesn’t set one of their agendas or for their personal gain,” read the complaint.
The document lists detailed examples of alleged violations, including intentional disregard of procedures, favoritism, non-compliance with bid laws, financial impropriety, personal gain from position, ethical misconduct, misuse of government resources, toxic leadership, unauthorized use of public property, wage, and hour law violations, ignoring open meetings act, nepotism, and fraternization.
The authors state a copy of the complaint has been sent to Alabama Secretary of State; Alabama Attorney General’s Office; Alabama Ethics Commission; Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA); State of Alabama Department of Examiners and Public Accounts; Lee County, Alabama District Attorney; and Alabama Licensing Board for General Contractors. WRBL is working to figure out if an official investigation is being conducted by an outside agency at this time.
“The leadership at the department still operates as if it is still in the 1970s/1980s where the good-ole-boy system is still in effect,” read the complaint.
The document alleges leadership appointments often seemed based on personal connections rather than qualifications, resulting in individuals lacking necessary skills and certifications. This approach appeared to serve personal interests, and not families being protected by the fire and ambulance service.
The complaint alleges previous and current officers and volunteers expressed legitimate concerns about the organization’s operations, including violations of Alabama laws and ethical or financial misconduct. They reported these issues to Fire Chief Walden and the SSFPD Board of Directors, but their concerns were dismissed as mere opinions without further action.
The complaint encourages the public to attend SSFPD Board Meetings on the first Tuesday of every month at 7:30 pm to ask these questions, to view a manning roster for the SSFPD Ambulance Service, the calls they responded to, and question why they didn’t respond.
“The SSFPD Board of Directors and Fire Chief Joseph Walden are keeping you (the community) in the dark and only posting on the Board Meeting Notes (Minutes) what they want you to see,” stated the complaint.
The complaint asks for outside investigations, alleging SFPD Board of Directors and Fire Chief Joseph Walden allowed a culture of misconduct, including fraud, ethical violations, financial irregularities, and misuse of resources, impacting taxpayers and residents. The report alleges a former Assistant Chief and the Fire Chief’s wife who was an employee received payments from SSFPD. The complaint also alleges SSFPD Board and Chief Walden disregarded legal steps to dispose of a Black Chevrolet Tahoe for the Chief’s personal use, despite it being a useful department asset. It’s unclear whether Chief Walden paid fair market value for the vehicle. The complaint says the vehicle is currently at Chief Walden’s residence and board minutes from FY 2022 and 2023 do not mention this transaction, raising concerns.
The document also alleges the Smiths Station Fire Protection District’s failure to establish a clear plan or policy for monthly charges related to a fire fee for protection and EMS services, as well as exemptions for these fees. The document recommends an appropriate agency investigate this issue and hold those responsible accountable for the lack of a clear policy and potential favoritism in fee exemptions.
“Without a current plan or policy, SSFPD Fire Chief Joe Walden would supersede the SSFPD Board of Directors and take it upon himself by exempting the Smiths Station City Government, schools, political associates, friends, and certain types of property, to name a few. Is this fair and impartial to the rest of the Smiths Station Fire Protection District coverage area, in that it depends on who you know if you pay a fee or not,” asks the authors of the complaint.
The document highlights the alleged lack of a clear policy for Paid Time Off (PTO) for Smiths Station Fire Protection District (SSFPD) employees. It mentions that the only known PTO policy, as of February 2023, is outdated. Concerns are raised about SSFPD Corporate and Board Secretary, who is the wife of the Fire Chief, taking numerous vacations without clear policy authorization. Questions arise regarding whether these vacations were paid and if the wife received compensation. There are also questions about Captain Blake Green, a salaried SSFPD employee, taking extended time off to instruct at the Alabama Fire College without clear policies in place, potentially incurring costs to the SSFPD community.
The complaint alleges SSFPD Board of Directors and Chief Walden engaged in nepotism by hiring his wife as a Corporate Secretary, and her close friend as a Billing Clerk. Both employees allegedly received significant favoritism, including extended lunch hours, numerous vacations, and the autonomy to create and enforce policies independently. Furthermore, the complaint alleges they used SSFPD funds to create books for their church, costing the community hundreds of dollars. They also inappropriately used the SSFPD Amazon account for personal purchases, with personal credit cards linked to it, potentially violating rules regarding government property and resources. The complaint says Chief Walden was made aware of this and promised to address the issue.
“Trust us when we tell you, that we want nothing but the best for the Smiths Station Fire Protection District and want this organization to thrive with success. The business owners, homeowners, and residents, current and past, in the Smiths Station Fire Protection District coverage area, need this organization to flourish, not only because they are paying for this service, but this is the right thing to do for our growing community. Keep in mind, the first eleven (11) ISSUES/Complaints have occurred within the past 18 months since the creation of the Fire District, imagine what this leadership will do if allowed to continue running SSFPD,” said the complaint.
WRBL will continue trying to get responses from city and fire leadership, and investigative agencies who received a copy of the complaint.