The embattled top administrator at Sacramento County’s fire dispatch center was formally fired Thursday after four months of paid leave, the culmination of a dispute in which he was investigated for his alleged role in financial irregularities while simultaneously being accused by a coworker of speaking about “vigilante justice” and making other allusions to violence during a workplace conversation.
Joseph Thuesen, who served as the executive director of the Sacramento Regional Fire/EMS Communication Center from last August until he was put on paid administrative leave April 12, was served his termination notice following a special board meeting Thursday, the center’s chairman confirmed Friday.
The official reason given for the terminations relates to financial discrepancies, but Thuesen was legally barred from the workplace three days after being put on leave, when a temporary workplace violence restraining order filed in Sacramento Superior Court by the center’s board chairman, Chris Costamagna, was granted against the then-executive director.
“While we don’t provide names or job titles in personnel matters, I can confirm that the SRFECC Board yesterday took action to move forward with the termination of two employees,” Costamagna, who is also a deputy chief of the Sacramento Fire Department, wrote Friday in an emailed response to an inquiry into Thuesen’s status. “The Board’s determination was based on the results of an independent review of financial irregularities brought to our attention in April.”
Although he did not name Thuesen, Costamagna in a previous statement to The Sacramento Bee indicated that the center took the “additional step of seeking a workplace restraining order against one of the two employees” involved in the same independent review mentioned Friday.
A retired longtime employee of the center and friend of Thuesen’s, Tina Dungan, told The Bee earlier this year that Thuesen’s executive assistant was put on leave at the same time as the director, and that it would be standard practice for personnel matters involving the two positions to be handled in tandem.
Court filings in Thuesen’s restraining order case detail allegations from Costamagna and the center’s two deputy directors, Diane House and Kylee Soares, regarding what Costamagna summarized as Thuesen showing signs of “mental instability.” The restraining order granted protection for House, Soares, Costamagna and their families against Thuesen, also prohibiting him from entering the 911 fire dispatch center near Mather Field.
House alleged in a written declaration that in an April 8 workplace conversation, Thuesen made concerning statements referencing “vigilante justice.” Soares wrote that this conversation led another, unnamed employee to express fears Thuesen would commit a “murder-suicide.”
The “emotionally charged” conversation House described allegedly involved Thuesen, whom she writes was “crying and very upset,” talking about a friend’s son dying under suspicious circumstances. House wrote that Thuesen “made comments to the effect of:
- ‘I have an arsenal at my house’
- ‘There is such a thing as vigilante justice’
- ‘It will be on like donkey kong’
- ‘If I could pack a gun I would.’ ”
In a response statement filed in late May, Thuesen vehemently denied the accusations of the April conversation, saying three of the four supposed statements were taken wildly out of context and the other was a complete fabrication.
Thuesen writes that he never claimed to have an arsenal at his house, and that he hasn’t owned any weapons since ending service with the Marines in 1993; that he did not reference “vigilante justice” but said, “justice will prevail”; that he uses the phrase “It’s on like Donkey Kong” jokingly on a regular basis; and that the “pack a gun” comment may have been in reference to a previous conversation in which House told him she wished she could carry a weapon, and he responded: “If I could, I would too.”
Thuesen wrote that he was in the process of an internal investigation into House, alleging that an employee had accused her of making racially insensitive comments. He added that House was “hypersensitive, emotional, and paranoid at work.” His response declaration goes on to describe House as an employee with an “axe to grind” who had multiple motives to make a “false report” against him.
Thuesen’s attorney, Katrina Saleen, wrote that these reasons included Thuesen “refusing to hire (House’s) daughter-in-law and a friend,” and theorized that House “stands to be benefit from (Thuesen’s) removal from Executive Director, where there is a chance that she can be named Interim Executive Director.”
Also included in Thuesen’s court filing were declarations by seven people in support of him – his wife, his best friend, his therapist, Dungan and three other former coworkers from the dispatch center – who each wrote that Thuesen did not have a violent temper and that they had never known him to own firearms. His therapist wrote that she did not evaluate Thuesen for a psychiatric hold because she did not deem him a danger to himself or others.
At the end of May, the workplace’s petition for a permanent restraining order against Thuesen was denied, but the administrator remained on paid administrative leave until his official termination this week.
The executive director role remained vacant for more than six weeks, with its duties handled on an ad-hoc basis by the two deputy directors and Costamagna until the interim role was given to Marc Bentovoja, a retired Sacramento Fire Department battalion chief. Bentovoja remains in the role, appointed May 29 to a six-month contract.
Both House and Soares wrote that they met confidentially with Costamagna, on the same day of the alleged conversation involving Thuesen, to inform the board chairman that they believed dispatch center funds had been misused. Attempts by The Bee to reach House or Soares for direct comment have been redirected to Costamagna.
Thuesen claimed in the May court filing that he was given no explanation by Costamagna or others at the time regarding the reason for his placement on administrative leave, and that he learned of the allegations of his “possible misuse of Center funds” when he was served with the temporary restraining order.
The executive director oversees day-to-day operations at the dispatch center but is also in charge of setting and proposing budget drafts to the four-member board of directors, according to a copy of Thuesen’s employment contract provided in response to a public records request by The Bee.
“In most circumstances, an employee has the right to appeal the Board’s decision and request a hearing before the full Board,” Costamagna’s statement from Friday morning continued. “Because this is an ongoing personnel matter, further details are not available at this time.”
Thuesen has indicated in his court filings that he’s been instructed not to speak to media. Saleen, his attorney in the restraining order case, did not immediately respond to The Bee’s request for comment.
What does the center do?
The Sacramento Regional Fire/EMS Communication Center is managed under joint authority of the Cosumnes Community Services District Fire Department, Folsom Fire Department, Sacramento Fire Department and Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District.
The center handles fire and medical 911 calls from those jurisdictions plus six others: Courtland, Herald, Isleton, Walnut Grove and Wilton fire departments, and the River Delta Fire Protection District.
The center’s board of governors is made up of a chief or deputy chief from the four primary agencies. According to its website, its dispatchers handle more than 350,000 emergency calls each year.