Controversial ordinance prompts request for removal of fire chief
Members of the Petersburg Volunteer Fire Department brought proposed fire department Ordinance 961 before the Petersburg Public Safety Advisory Board Wednesday, June 20.
Department member William Bergmann reviewed the proposed ordinance.
At the insistence of the City Manager, five senior members of the Fire Department have rewritten the draft ordinance provided by the City Manager.
This ordinance governs how the department functions. The City Manager’s basic desire is to give the department head the authority over the fire chief.
“This is a very controversial issue among the volunteers,” Bergmann said. “The fire chief, like the police chief, should have the authority.”
There were several changes made to this ordinance by the department members. Originally, the ordinance stated that the director, who is EMS Director Sandy Dixson, shall have supervision and control of all fire department employees and the fire chief. The changes reflect that the director shall supervise all fire department employees and the fire chief.
“The fire chief shall be elected by the volunteers and approved by the director and City Manager,” Bergmann stated. “In the past, the fire chief was just approved by the City Manager.”
The department has a hierarchy of officers that tell everyone else what to do, Bergmann continued.
“The chief should directly appoint members with a more formal procedure,” said Bergmann.
As it stands the chain of command for the PVFD is the City Manager, Steve Giesbrecht; the Director, Dixson and the Fire Chief, Jared Cook.
There are two paid members of PVFD the EMS Director and the Fire Marshal, Ryan Welde. Of these two paid city employees, one is appointed the director.
“The director is supervised by the City Manager, of course, they are a city employee,” Bergmann said. “But we have to have confidence in our chief and he should be elected by the volunteers.”
There have only been 17 fire chiefs in the last 100 years.
“Continuity is very important in the department,” Bergmann explained. “We don’t want to lose or change fire chiefs if they happen to run afoul of the City Manager.”
Petersburg Police Chief, Jim Agner spoke as a private citizen to the necessity of this new ordinance.
Agner explained that he has been a police officer for a quarter of a century, but he has had extensive experience in fire and EMS services for over a decade.
“I have been a staunch supporter of the fire department in this town and other towns all of my career because my heart is with them,” Agner said. “Volunteer firemen have a dedication to their community that goes above and beyond the average person.”
Agner spoke of a shift in loyalty and dedication over the last couple of years.
“There has been a shift in recruitment from professional to less professional,” Agner stated. “This is more of a bar patrons sort of group.”
He also explained that not only he has noticed the difference in professionalism, but the community has noticed as well.
“Rumors of at least one couple having sex in all of the Lazy Boys in the fire hall are going around the community,” Agner stated. “As well as the continuing rumor of a couple, some time ago, having sex on the gurney in the ambulance in the old fire department building.”
Agner goes on to explain that during a fire department picnic there were reports of excessive drinking and even fights among the firemen, as well as firefighters showing up to fire scenes drunk.
These rumors, though unproven, are the reason for the need for such an ordinance according to Agner.
“The City of Petersburg is responsible for the actions of its firemen and the equipment,” Agner stated. “As the ultimate responsible party, the City needs to be the ultimate authority.”
As explained by Agner, the City has been aware of this unacceptable behavior and it has come to the point that they are forced to remediate this behavior.
“The fire chief and the directors refuse to take appropriate action,” Agner stated. “The fire chief has also publicly chastised the department head for doing her job.”
Agner continued that the original ordinance was written appropriately and it was done to address the issues of responsibility.
“If there hadn’t been the issues that have come up recently, or if the fire chief had been responsible in his job, this ordinance would have never been written in the first place,” Agner said. “This is written because things are broken. The fire chief began a campaign of extortion to the city and there have been threats of mass walk offs by volunteers if they don’t get their way in these things.”
He explained that this is not a good ordinance and the City Manager wrote a proper ordinance and that is the one the city should adopt.
“If the fire chief had not created this situation,” Agner stated. “No one would have ever looked at changing the ordinance.”
As a private citizen, Agner stated, “I am requesting that the Public Safety Advisory Board adopt this original ordinance and also ask that they request the City Council to direct the City Manager to immediately relieve the fire chief of his position.”
Agner continued, “If he is gone, this ordinance may not continue through a third reading.”
He spoke to the members of the fire department in attendance and told them that they should get their house in order.
“If you don’t do it quickly, I will withdraw all of my support to the Petersburg Volunteer Fire Department and will actively campaign against you and discuss the issues that the City of Petersburg has with your organization,” Agner said.
Public Safety Advisory Board Chair Syd Bacom explained this board exists to make recommendations and to discuss the direction this ordinance will go from here.
“We have a situation in front of us,” Bacom said. “And this has to be taken somewhere beyond us.”
Bacom also explained that this was not a forum to sling hash back and forth. “We know there are two sides to every story. All of this that has been discussed here, needs to be discussed before the council.”
PVFD Assistant Fire Chief Doug Welde stated, “We are aware of the goings on and we are terribly embarrassed and ashamed that it has come to this point, but we are trying to deal with it.”
Welde explained that rumors are hard to stop once they get started, and even harder to turn things around.
“This ordinance was a really tough pill to swallow for the volunteers,” Welde stated. “We just feel that the fire chief position needs to have an oar in the water enough that they want to participate and work hard.”
Bacom explained that they could make a recommendation as the Public Safety Advisory Board but would not side one way or the other.
“I believe what we are looking at here is something that will have to be solved in Council,” Bacom said. “We obviously can’t solve this here in this venue, but we can send it to the City Council.”