WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. (WLFI) - Former Wabash Township Fire Chief Ed Ward is now sharing his side of the story. Ward was fired in December in a whirlwind of controversy. Township Trustee Jennifer Teising said he was conspiring other board members to stage a "coup" against her.
"It's difficult because it changed everything for my family," said Ward.
Ward said his passion in life has been serving the community. He started as a Darlington volunteer firefighter in 1998. More than two decades later, he found himself promoted to fire chief at the Wabash Township Fire Department in March 2019. He acted as interim chief until September before becoming full-time chief.
"The 30,000 people who live in the unincorporated part of West Lafayette still are due a service, they're our customers," he said. "At the end of the day everything should revolve around that."
He wanted several terms legally written out for him to stay on as fire chief, one being that should there be in decision to change leadership, he could return to his previous position as a firefighter. He said he repeatedly asked if Teising had followed through with making that stipulation official, but he said she always had some kind of excuse.
He said it had been a long year and a half trying to move the department forward. He said working with Trustee Teising could be difficult, but he felt they had developed a positive working relationship. That is until he came into the office on December 7th 2020.
"Through the wall I hear her tell the firefighter that she is going to be removing me as chief," he said.
He said he instantly started to prepare. He called his wife. He met with his deputy chiefs to talk about the direction of the department with or without him. He said he had a meeting scheduled with Teising the next day, and he had prepared a list of talking points. The meeting came and went and she didn't bring it up.
He waited in limbo for five days when he said the trustee finally talked with him about his employment status.
"She had told me three different times that I was being placed on paid vacation, three different times paid vacation this and paid vacation that," he said, adding that she wanted to know if he had been talking about her with others. "I was very upfront with her and said the only conversations I've had about you have been people asking where you're at."
Rumors had begun to circulate that Teising had moved to Florida. She had stopped coming to the regular township board meetings. Ward said Teising told him to be on standby and to call her office on January 2nd for further talks about his employment. But on December 21st, the board asked Teising to resign. That same day, she officially terminated Ward.
"She didn't give any sort of rules I'd broken. She didn't give any sort of procedures or policies that had I didn't carry out," he said.
The firefighters walked out in protest of his firing that same day.
Teising sent News 18 the following statement about her decision to fire Ward on December 22nd:
"After having conversations with township personnel, it has come to my attention that the commissioners of Tippecanoe County have been uninterested in approving a fire district if I am the trustee. They are upset with me personally and 'it goes beyond you beating Dave Byers wife in the election'. This has created a problem because both Lafayette and west Lafayette fire chiefs have gone on record at the county council meetings and in writing to the township board members in support of the township fire department fire district. Therefore a faction of the fire department, lead by chief Ed ward have been working with board president Michelle whitbrock to stage a coup and get me to resign from my position. They asked me to resign because I haven’t actually done anything wrong. During this global pandemic I have been working remotely. I did indeed sell my home and become a renter. All completely within the regulations and laws of our state. I’ve attended all board meetings required by my position and supplied all the information necessary for the board to vote and complete their jobs. Which they did. I have been working with the state (we are the only township in Tippecanoe county to do so) to administer state funds in the rental assistance program. I have been working with the non profit task force hotline to make sure that township residents are receiving any funds they are eligible. This has saved the taxpayers tax dollars for next year when foreclosures are likely to start happening. The fire department has told me they have everything they need to do the job and in fact benefits have been expended under my leadership. This blatant power grab and people attacking me for their own political gain is appalling and does nothing but cement my commitment to the voters. The leadership in Tippecanoe county shouldn’t be taking their political inspiration from Donald Trump and usurping the will of the people."
Ward said reached out via email to Teising on December 28th requesting a hearing regarding his termination. He said that under Indiana Code 36-8-3-4, he is a due a hearing if it is requested five days of termination. However, Teising responded with, in Ward's eyes, a loophole out of that.
She said that the code only applies to "towns and townships that have full-time, paid police or fire departments." Since Wabash Township has a status of a volunteer fire department, she claimed she didn't have to give him a hearing, even though he was a full-time employee.
The email was also his formal notice that entering any Wabash Township property would be considered trespassing with legal repercussions.
Ward is now suing for wrongful termination.
"It would be the easiest thing for me to grab my stuff and walk away," he said, adding that it's been difficult to justify paying for a lawsuit when he is out of a job, has bills to pay and a family to help support.
However, he said he can't turn his back on the family of firefighters he has who are still with the department and that this fight is bigger than him. It's about the future of the township community.
"My family and I have been blessed with support," he said, getting choked up. "That's a pretty strong thing to help keep you drive forward when you want to quit."
Ward said his days of fighting fires are most likely over, something that is especially hard because of how much he loved his job. He said he has begun to search for another job, with his developed skills as a leader in a workplace. Ward's brother started a GoFundMe to help cover his legal fees.