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Los Pinos fire district settles wrongful termination lawsuit

Former deputy chief paid back wages as part of agreement
Los Pinos Fire Protection District, based in Ignacio, has settled its lawsuit with former deputy chief Kevin Ratzmann.

Former Deputy Chief Kevin Ratzmann sued the Los Pinos Fire Protection District alleging eight counts, including wrongful termination and retaliation, in June.

Six months later, the Ignacio-based fire district agreed to settle all eight counts. Ratzmann received at least $14,427 in compensation.

Ratzmann’s termination coincided with a 2018 leadership shakeup in which Ratzmann brought forward complaints alleging misconduct on the part of former fire chief Tom Aurnhammer. The district fired Ratzmann shortly after he raised the complaints. He moved on to a job as fire chief at Grand Lake Fire.

“I am glad to be able to close that chapter in my family’s life and move on with my head held high,” said Ratzmann. “I wish the department and the community the best.”

According to the lawsuit, Ratzmann joined the district as deputy chief in 2016 under the impression that he would be promoted to fire chief within six months.

Aurnhammer

He originally applied for the available fire chief position, but the district gave the position to Aurnhammer, an internal candidate.

It informed Ratzmann that Aurnhammer planned to retire in six months, and he would be promoted to the position at that time, according to Ratzmann’s lawsuit.

Ratzmann moved from Florida, where he was an emergency medical services and fire training captain, to take the position. But Aurnhammer did not resign.

Then in October 2018, Ratzmann submitted a complaint to the board of directors about Aurnhammer’s fitness for duty and possible misconduct, based on his own observations and multiple complaints from other employees.

Shortly after he submitted his written complaint, the district initiated an investigation of Ratzmann. In November 2018, the board of directors voted to fire him, the lawsuit said.

At the time, Ratzmann had a five-year employment agreement with the district, lasting from August 2017 to August 2022, the lawsuit said.

In June 2020, Ratzmann filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for Colorado against the Los Pinos Fire Protection District and five board members: James Brown, board president during the incident; Mark Williams; Kirk Becker; Paul Blocker and Frank Weis.

The lawsuit’s eight counts alleged retaliation, denial of due process, breach of contract and implied contract, and wrongful discharge.

The district and Ratzmann came to a settlement agreement and dismissed the case as of Nov. 30.

The district late last year denied a Colorado Open Records Request submitted by The Durango Herald to release the settlement agreement, saying it is a personnel matter and the agreement was still in draft form.

“Unfortunately, this sometimes gives the appearance the public entity is not being transparent when it is simply following the statutory requirements,” said Bud Smith, the district’s attorney.

The Herald again requested a copy of the settlement agreement after receiving confirmation compensation was paid to Ratzmann and the settlement had been finalized.

The district denied the request again, this time saying the record was not open for public inspection.

The Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, a nonprofit trade group that advocates for transparency and upholding open record and open meeting laws, said the settlement agreement should be made public.

“Courts in Colorado have consistently ruled that settlement agreements are not exempt ‘personnel files’ under CORA (Colorado Open Records Act),” said Jeff Roberts, CFOIC executive director.

Roberts cited several legal cases and a 1998 opinion from the Colorado Office of Attorney General, which said: “Although written communications prepared during alternative dispute resolution proceedings are confidential, a final fully executed settlement agreement ... is subject to the Open Records Act.”

As part of the settlement, the district paid Ratzmann $14,427 in back wages using money provided by its insurance company. No public money was used in the settlement, Smith said.

The total compensation in the agreement was likely higher than $14,427. Smith and Ratzmann acknowledged the settlement included more than one payment.

Smith declined to comment further, saying any other payments were unrelated to the district or its board of directors.

Ratzmann said he received about $60,000, but he could not comment further because he has a nondisclosure agreement.

The district is reviewing and updating its personnel policies, Smith said.

“Public entities have to deal with allegations of retaliation, due process and wrongful termination even in cases where the allegations are without merit,” Smith said, adding that he wasn’t referencing any specific claim. “That cannot be avoided regardless of practice or policies.”

smullane@durangoherald.com

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