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Sacramento fire 911 dispatch appoints interim director; incumbent still under restraining order

Joseph Thuesen, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Fire and EMS Communications Center, was placed on paid administrative leave April 12, three days before officials at the center sought and were granted a restraining order against him for alleged “mental instability” and mentions of owning firearms made them fear for their safety.
Joseph Thuesen, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Fire and EMS Communications Center, was placed on paid administrative leave April 12, three days before officials at the center sought and were granted a restraining order against him for alleged “mental instability” and mentions of owning firearms made them fear for their safety. The Mountain Democrat, Placerville

Sacramento’s main fire and EMS 911 dispatch center appointed an interim executive director Tuesday, filling a vacancy created more than six weeks earlier when its top administrator was put on leave and then barred from his workplace via restraining order.

Marc Bentovoja, a former battalion chief with the Sacramento Fire Department and retired annuitant receiving CalPERS benefits, was appointed to the top job at Sacramento Regional Fire/EMS Communications Center at a board meeting Tuesday morning, assuming the role the same day.

Bentovoja “is deemed by the center to possess specialized skills” necessary for the role, according to an employment agreement in Tuesday’s meeting agenda.

It’s a six-month appointment, board chairman and Sacramento Fire Department Deputy Chief Chris Costamagna said in an emailed statement to The Bee.

“His experience will help lead the continued, professional operation of the center for our dispatchers, staff and first responders, while we continue our investigation into financial irregularities at the center,” the statement continued. “This investigation is ongoing.”

That investigation centers on the incumbent executive director, Joseph Thuesen. Costamagna, who is Thuesen’s boss, previously told The Bee that Thuesen was placed on paid administrative leave April 12 due to an investigation into “accounting irregularities.”

More troubling language, though, was seen in court filings for a workplace violence restraining order granted last month in Sacramento Superior Court.

Costamagna and center deputy directors Kylee Soares and Diane House each wrote of an alleged April 8 incident in which Thuesen had an “emotionally charged” conversation with employees in the workplace that they say caused them to fear for their safety and that of their coworkers.

House wrote that Thuesen broke into tears while talking about his friend’s son being the victim of a suspicious death, and that Thuesen spoke of having an “arsenal” of guns at his house, made reference to “vigilante justice” and said: “If I could pack a gun I would.” This conversation led an unnamed finance employee to express fear that Thuesen would commit a “murder-suicide,” Soares wrote in court filings. And Costamagna wrote that he was concerned about Thuesen’s “mental instability.”

Soares and House wrote that they had a conversation with Costamagna about Thuesen that same day – confidentially, outside the workplace – informing that they believed dispatch center funds had been misused. In addition to managing the agency’s day-to-day operations, the executive director is in charge of setting and proposing budget drafts to the four-member board of governors.

The temporary restraining order was granted April 15. Thuesen was ordered to stay 500 yards away from Costamagna, Soares, House, their families, their children’s schools and the dispatch center’s main facility near Mather Field, as well as a Rancho Cordova training facility.

Thuesen was also ordered to forfeit all firearms or provide proof he sold them, but in an April court filing he asserted repeatedly and with underlined emphasis that he did not own any guns.

A hearing seeking permanent status on Thuesen’s restraining order remains set for Friday. Thuesen has not responded to The Bee’s requests for comment.

In the weeks between Thuesen’s placement on leave and Bentovoja’s appointment Tuesday, the executive director’s daily operations were performed by the center’s board members and two deputy directors, Costamagna told The Bee earlier in May.

Public records available online show Bentovoja retired from the Sacramento Fire Department in 2014, having served as a battalion chief dating back to at least 2012. In 2018, he received $163,932 in pensions and benefits, according to Transparent California.

Bentovoja will make $89.69 per hour in his interim role, but will not be eligible for additional benefits beyond his existing CalPERS annuity, according to his contract. However, he will be enrolled with CalPERS by the center “solely for the recordkeeping purposes of CalPERS,” his employee agreement states.

Bentovoja cannot be paid for more than 960 hours (120 eight-hour shifts) per fiscal year, the contract says.

Thuesen was appointed executive director Aug. 28 after months in the role as an interim, beginning a three-year contract with options for up to two one-year extensions. His base salary the first year was $168,068, with scheduled raises that would have him making $191,332 in the third full year, starting August 2020.

One other center employee was placed on administrative leave the same day as Thuesen. A former longtime employee of the center and acquaintance of Thuesen, Tina Dungan, told The Bee last month that the second person put on leave was Thuesen’s assistant. Costamagna has declined to identify the second person or confirm his or her role.

Dungan, a 21-year veteran dispatcher at the center who retired three years ago, also came to Thuesen’s defense, telling The Bee in April that he is not a violent person, has never owned guns and “hardly cusses.” She described the dispatch center as a “hellhole” and noted that Thuesen rose through the ranks, having started as a dispatcher.

The center handles calls from 10 Sacramento County jurisdictions: the Cosumnes Community Services District Fire Department, Folsom Fire Department, Sacramento Fire Department and Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District, which have joint authority and board seats; plus the Courtland, Herald, Isleton, Walnut Grove and Wilton fire departments, and the River Delta Fire Protection District.

Tuesday’s meeting agenda includes data showing the center received 14,638 incoming 911 calls last month.

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