Sunday, February 25, 2024

Wrightsville Beach fire chief on administrative leave after ‘vote of no confidence’ petition

Josh Haraway, the former fire chief of Wrightsville Beach, has been put on administrative leave. Matt Holland has taken over in the interim. (Port City Daily/Peter Castagno)

WRIGHTSVILLE BEACH — After a petition garnering more than 500 signatures went live last month accusing the Wrightsville Beach fire chief of creating a toxic work environment, Josh Haraway is now on administrative leave.

READ MORE: WB Board of Aldermen to hold special meeting Jan. 17 to discuss public employee

A Wrightsville Beach alderman confirmed the news to PCD Friday. 

“My understanding from the interim town manager is that Chief Haraway is on administrative leave, pending an investigation by a third party that has begun,” Mayor Pro Tem Hank Miller wrote in an email.

Miller added he was limited on information at the time, due to it being a personnel matter.

Port City Daily reached out to the interim town manager, Tony Wilson, for more information; however, he cited it a personnel matter as well, without further comment.

According to the North Carolina Press Association’s Amanda Martin, personnel statutes  require governments to provide the media some information when it comes to municipal staffing. GS 160A-168 indicates information can be shared on: “(9) Date and type of each promotion, demotion, transfer, suspension, separation, or other change in position classification with that municipality.”

PCD has asked the town how much Haraway was making, if his administrative leave is paid and if he received any raises during his time there. Haraway took over as the town’s fire chief in 2022; Wilson said he would send the requests to human resources officer Cindy McGrady.

Stepping in as interim fire chief is Matt Holland, who has been with the department for 18 years. Holland confirmed with PCD Haraway went on administrative leave at the same time town manager Tim Owens retired.

Mayor Darryl Mills announced last month during a meeting regarding parking at Wrightsville Beach that Owens would retire. Alderman Ken Dull told PCD it was effective immediately but also praised Owens.

“Tim’s been a great manager and he’s been working on planning retirement,” Dull said at the time.

CATCH UP: Wrightsville Beach town manager retires, effective immediately

Owens was also implicated in the petition regarding Haraway.

“WBFD personnel were told we are no longer allowed to go to HR if we have a problem, but we must go through Chief Haraway and the town manager first,” the petition claims.

The petition was started by the Wrightsville Beach Fire Department and Ocean Rescue staff and is marked now closed. Holland confirmed he did not sign it. 

“I’m aware of the complaints in the petition but don’t know a ton of details about it,” he said.

The petition was posted to Change.org on Jan. 11 as a letter expressing a “vote of no confidence” in its leadership

“In the nearly two years since Chief Haraway’s hiring at WBFD, his actions have diminished the services our fire department is able to provide to our community, as well as made our citizens and employees less safe,” petitioners stated. “He has created a culture of fear, mistrust, and authoritarianism within a line of work that requires confidence, trust, and teamwork.”

The staff stated in the petition they attempted to correct issues within the department but were met with dismissive behavior from Haraway, noting “at times [he] retaliated against employees for speaking out.”

Allegations in the petition included:

  • Changes to mutual aid agreements with Wilmington and New Hanover Fire Departments led to over 80 instances in 2023 where WBFD were off the island responding to other calls, leaving no fire personnel on the island.
  • The chief improperly responded to an active shooter on Scotch Bonnet Lane in contradiction to FEMA and National Fire Protection Association guidelines. The petitoners state WBFD currently does not have a standard operating procedure to respond to active shooters.
  • Making sexist or degrading comments to female staff, leading to the departure of six out of seven of the department’s female employees.
  • Causing ocean rescue director Dave Baker to go on leave due to stress from the hostile work environment created by Haraway.
  • Mishandling personnel issues, dismissing concerns raised by staff, and at times retaliating against employees who spoke out.
  • Lack of support for the WBFD volunteer fire program, causing 2023 to be the first year in decades the department did not have a volunteer program. The petition states numerous volunteers were terminated or left of their own accord, citing Haraway’s leadership.

The Wrightsville Beach Board of Alderman held a special meeting last month in closed session to go over a personnel matter and would not confirm what the meeting was in regards to, due to statute NCGS 143-318.11(a)(6). The statute allows closed meetings to “consider the qualifications, competence, performance, character, fitness, conditions of appointment, or conditions of initial employment of an individual public officer or employee.”

Two days later Owens retired, effective immediately.

Mills told PCD at the time the town was taking the allegations in the petition seriously: “And we’re going to look into it and investigate it and take appropriate action that may be warranted.”

Thursday night’s Wrightsville Beach town meeting included a resolution signed off by the aldermen to seek the assistance of the North Carolina League of Municipalities to help with the search for Owens’ replacement.

Wilson and Miller met with representatives last week and according to the mayor the town has utilized the NCLM services before.

“None of this is meant as a reflection on what Tony is doing for us; he’s doing a fine job as acting town manager,” he added. “He is also a building inspector and enforcement officer, so he can’t do this indefinitely.”  

Miller added Wilson didn’t have interest in maintaining the role. 

The mayor thanked the town staff for “keeping the machine going” while the town worked through its management change.

When asked if the town was also searching for a new fire chief, Wilson said he could not comment as the investigation continues.


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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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