For the first time in about two years, Richard Lestienne Jr. doesn’t have a pager on his hip.
Lestienne doesn’t hear the familiar crackle of static as calls come in to Oak Grove Volunteer Fire Department.
He was required to return his pager and other equipment to Oak Grove Volunteer Fire Chief Bill Johnson after he was removed from the department Aug. 7.
Johnson was notified of Lestienne’s removal via an email sent at 7:09 a.m. Aug. 7 by Michael Workman, the city’s emergency medical services director.
“The Mayor has directed that Richard Liestene (Lestienne) be removed from the Oak Grove Fire Department,” stated the email procured by The Eagle Post through an open records request. “According to City Policy, the Mayor has the authority to appoint or remove all city employees. As of this date, he is no longer a volunteer with the City of Oak Grove.”
The morning of his removal, Lestienne was at the department helping teach a class about fire extinguishers. Afterward, Johnson called him into his office to deliver the news, Lestienne said.
Lestienne said, at the time, Johnson told him he received a call from Oak Grove Mayor Theresa Jarvis about his removal.
“(Johnson) said he was given no reason and no explanation,” Lestienne said. “He said he questioned it, but was told I was to be removed.”
The Eagle Post unsuccessfully reached out to Johnson regarding Lestienne’s removal.
Moments after Lestienne was informed of his removal, the fire department received a page out that CPR was in progress.
“I asked (Johnson) if he wanted me to go with them, because an officer from Oak Grove Police Department was performing CPR, so it’s all hands on deck, but he just told me to sit tight, because at that point he had already informed I was to be removed,” Lestienne said.
Lestienne was a sergeant with the department. He was an engineer, meaning he is trained to drive the firetruck.
During his eight-year active-duty Army career, Lestienne served as a petroleum supply specialist, also known as 92F. He earned a driver’s badge and holds a Class A CDL.
He also is a Basic Life Support certified instructor by the American Heart Association, which qualifies him to teach CPR and AED training.
In the two years since he joined the department Lestienne estimates he has spent 40 - 60 hours per week volunteering with the team. Lestienne is just a few hours short of completing 150 hours of certified training through Kentucky Fire Commission.
“I am not the most important piece of the puzzle at (the fire department), but I would be remiss to say that I’m not an important piece,” Lestienne said. “I responded to most calls and tried to make every call.”
Oak Grove Volunteer Fire Department is a Chapter 95 certified volunteer fire department recognized by the Kentucky Fire Commission, said Bruce Roberts, KFC division director.
Being a Chapter 95 city fire department means the department is not required to have bylaws or a board of directors, Roberts said.
As a city fire department, the entity is governed by city council, Roberts added.
Oak Grove firefighters are considered non-paid city employees, Jarvis said. Because they are city employees, Jarvis has the authority to hire and fire individuals at-will, she said.
“The state says I can let anyone go for any reason or no reason, but I would never do that. I would definitely have a reason,” Jarvis said. “The final decision is mine. I would never fire someone just because I don’t like them.”
Jarvis refused to give a reason for Lestienne’s removal.
“I really don’t discuss personnel matters for the public,” she said. “It’s at-will. I’m just not comfortable talking about it.”
Jarvis said all the correct termination procedures were followed in Lestienne’s removal.
According to the 2016 edition of the City of Oak Grove Employee Handbook, the employment of any member of the police or fire department, who has completed the introductory period, may not be terminated for any reason other than “inefficiency, misconduct, insubordination or a violation of law or the rules adopted by the city.” This is in accordance with KRS. 95.450 and KRS 15.520.
A qualifying member of the police or fire department may not be terminated until after charges are preferred and a hearing is conducted by the City in the manner prescribed by the above statutes, according to the handbook.
Lestienne said he has not been informed about a hearing regarding his removal.
KRS 83A.080 demands all non-elected officers shall be removed by the mayor only after being given written reason for the dismissal, according to the handbook.
Jarvis has not provided Lestienne with any reason for his removal, written or otherwise, he said.
Lestienne feels his removal Aug. 7 was an act of retaliation for comments he made during a city council meeting Aug. 6.
During the meeting, which was live-streamed on Facebook by The Eagle Post, Lestienne approached the council as a tax-paying resident — not a city employee or fire department representative — and voiced several concerns. Concerns included providing active-shooter training, community events and the city’s recently approved annual budget.
“I’ve tried to remain quiet,” Lestienne said. “I’ve tried to remain cordial. Nothing I said was extremely out of line at the meeting the other night. I don’t regret anything I said. What I said doesn’t change who (Jarvis) is. I can’t control her actions. She was going to remove me one of these days, regardless.”
Jarvis denies Lestienne’s removal was an act of retaliation.
“I just don’t think (Lestienne) was a good fit for our fire department, to be honest with you,” Jarvis said. “There are several things that brought us to (his removal).”
Jarvis said she has contemplated Lestienne’s removal from the department for at least two months. Jarvis has been in office for about eight months.
At about 9:30 a.m. Aug. 5, Jarvis sent emails to Oak Grove city council members Janet Edwards and Isaiah Spencer asking “to speak with (Edwards and Spencer) about something,” according to open records.
Jarvis said she contacted Edwards and Spencer to inform them about Lestienne’s removal. City councilwoman Jean Leavell also was informed, the mayor said.
“They heard from me what my plan was before the council meeting so (Lestienne) couldn’t come back and say it was retaliation after the meeting, because I knew he would,” Jarvis said. “I needed them to be aware of what my intentions were.”
Edwards confirmed she was informed Aug. 5 of Jarvis’ intention to remove Lestienne.
“(Jarvis) told me she was going to remove (Lestienne), but we didn’t go into detail. She didn’t ask my opinion or ask about policy or procedures,” Edwards said. “She didn’t ask me if it was appropriate or if I felt it was within the guidelines or anything. I asked her if she did all of her research and if she had consulted the attorney, and she said she had.”
Edwards said Lestienne’s removal was not an act of retaliation.
“I don’t know enough about anything that happened, so I don’t have an opinion,” she said. “The only thing I do know is that he wasn’t removed because of what he said at council (Tuesday).”
Edwards said she considers Lestienne a friend.
“I don’t know the whole story and I don’t need to know the whole story,” Edwards said. “The way I understand it, it is the mayor’s discretion.”
Edwards said she told Jarvis there would be backlash regarding this decision.
“I have a lot of respect for firefighters. I have a lot of respect for Mr. Lestienne. I don’t want to say, or do, or infer anything that could be misconstrued or could later cause hardship for anybody,” Edwards said. “It’s not my decision to make and it’s not my story to tell. I still haven’t even sorted everything out, because I honestly don’t know the reasons.”
The other half of city council members — to include Jackie Oliver, Kisha Mische-Jeffrey and James McKnight — were not informed of the mayor’s intentions.
Oliver believes Lestienne’s removal was an act of retaliation.
“I think it’s a cowardice act on the mayor, especially because she won’t give a reason why she let him go,” Oliver said. “(Lestienne) has always been a threat to more than just the mayor. I don’t mean a physical threat. I mean he is smart. He is very articulate with everything he does. When he was relieved of his duties, I was really surprised.”
Oliver said she doesn’t know why Lestienne’s removal was not discussed with all city council members. Oliver disagreed with Jarvis about Lestienne “not being a good fit.”
“(Jarvis’) definition of not being a ‘good fit’ means (Lestienne) would not shut up and do what she wanted him to do,” Oliver said.
Oliver said she considers Lestienne a friend, so his removal saddens her on a personal level.
“Richard is a decorated soldier. He went to war not knowing if he would come back or not, so that we could stay living here. Now, he fights fires,” Oliver said. “He has dedicated his entire adult life to helping and serving others, not himself. I feel like (Jarvis) stabbed him in the heart because this is the only way she could get to him, by taking the fire department from him.”
Oliver said citizens have flooded social media with questions, comments and concerns regarding Lestienne’s removal.
Oliver cited recent news reports regarding fire incidents in other communities demonstrating the city’s need for a functional, staffed department.
“I hope all the citizens of Oak Grove keep this in mind — if we continue to just let things go the way they are going, pray to God that nothing like this happens,” Oliver said.
About 41 firefighters are on the Oak Grove Volunteer Fire Department roster, Lestienne said. However, about five of them regularly show up to answer calls, he added.
“If I was one of the investors in (Oak Grove Racing and Gaming), I would pull out right now,” Oliver said. “I would cut my losses and pull out because this city, under this administration, is in no way prepared for any kind of anything to happen over there. If they need us to help them (fire department wise), we have to get help. We don’t have enough people.”
Last year, Oak Grove Volunteer Fire Department responded to more than 900 calls, according to an article published by The Eagle Post June 2018.
Lestienne said he will continue to be a helping force in the community.
“I love being a firefighter. I love helping people. I’m still here and people will see me around. I still care,” Lestienne said. “I’m still willing to come back to the department, no matter what.”
He added it is his intention to somehow return to the department as a firefighter.
“If I had it my way, I’d be back at the department right now,” Lestienne said. “If they called me right now and told me I was back on, I’d be like ‘great, let me get my pager back.’”
Reach Mari-Alice Jasper at 270-887-3262 or firstname.lastname@example.org.