Too Many Fire Chiefs

Evergreen Fire/Rescue is burning money ó and residentsí patience.

The stage was set for clashes between the volunteers and the paid chief early in 2006, when Janov failed to get enough votes to change the Evergreen Volunteer Fire Department bylaws so that the paid chief would become the volunteers' "head line officer." Instead, the volunteers elected their own "operations chief," Evan Soibelman, setting up a dual system reminiscent of what Janov had faced as the volunteer chief dealing with a paid district administrator. (Soibelman didn't respond to a request for comment, nor did the president of the volunteers' elected board, Keith Haugrud. Several department veterans did speak to Westword about leadership issues but asked that their names not be used, out of concerns about retaliation.)

In the months that followed, skirmishes over operational questions between the volunteers and the chief, backed by the district board, became commonplace. At one point the two sides hammered out a "memorandum of agreement" addressing their respective responsibilities that appeared to be sufficiently vague to satisfy everybody; it acknowledged that the district board had ultimate authority over operating procedures, but the development of policies "governing fire operations, rescue and EMS by Volunteers, consistent with this goal shall be the responsibility of the Fire Operations Chief...under the direction of the Fire Chief." Still, what those words actually meant soon became the subject of a flurry of letters between board president Shanley, volunteer president Haugrud and others.

Many of the disputes boiled down to a couple of basic issues. Janov insisted that the chief had to be in charge of selecting officers, without the approval of the volunteer membership. To do otherwise, he suggested, was to leave open the possibility that the volunteers would elect their less-qualified but popular buddies to run things — a strange argument, perhaps, given that Janov himself had been the beneficiary of the popular vote, and one utterly rejected by most volunteers.

"Our people don't want to be led by somebody's buddy," one veteran says. "Their lives are at stake. They want the most qualified people. The board should have gone to the senior officers in the department for a reality check on what Joel was saying."

But Janov isn't impressed by assertions that the volunteers' chosen officers are the most qualified people. "Those are self-proclamations," he snaps. "Measured by whom? Who gets to decide what the minimum standards are?"

A related sore point involved Janov's efforts to revise standard operating procedures and make them consistent across divisions. The fire-district board and the chief are ultimately responsible for setting and maintaining standards, he points out, but the volunteers weren't eager to see the process turned over to elected officials who'd never fought a fire.

"That's important stuff, like how many people you send in on the hose line," notes Neppell. Yet even he concedes there might have been less fuss over altering bylaws and SOPs if the volunteers had had more confidence in the man who was leading them. Janov's my-way-or-the-highway style had alienated many former supporters, and there was a perception that the district board itself was no longer approachable, that they'd bought into Janov's crusade too deeply to change course.

"One of the boardmembers told my husband that he didn't have the right to an opinion because he hadn't lived here long enough," says Julie Kling. "The volunteers were totally stonewalled by the board. But they're elected officials. They should have to listen to any citizen who has an opinion."

By last fall, the internal squabbling had become serious enough that the board decided to conduct a survey of employee attitudes. The survey itself quickly became a matter of controversy. The announced results only gave general scores on job performance, working conditions and other broad categories, with "communication" and "climate" rating poorly. The volunteers' views on their chief were neatly cloaked in a largely neutral score on leadership matters. Narrative answers that the respondents were encouraged to provide weren't released at all, and some critics considered that another broken promise by the board.

"On the cover of the survey, it said those answers would be released verbatim. They never were," says Neppell, who was unable to obtain the raw data through an open-records request.

Putting together the OET white paper had required the services of one team of outside experts, and the survey brought in another. Janov's critics maintained that the department was now under siege by a plague of consultants, chewing through the budget like weevils in a boll of cotton. Some of the professionals — a financial-services firm charging $4,200 a month, a human-resources consultant billing around $5,000 a month — represented a kind of outsourcing; Janov says they provided a degree of expertise the department wouldn't get from a salaried employee.

But other consulting services were a bit unusual for an organization the size of Evergreen Fire/Rescue. The district shelled out $4,500 for Janov and a boardmember to attend a three-day seminar in conflict resolution and communication skills. It went on to pay the manager of a Castle Rock consulting firm $200 an hour to coach Janov and others on various niceties, including "effective behaviors and words," as they sought to ease the transition and resolve tensions; in the first four months of 2007, payments to that consultant alone topped $18,000. After some unflattering articles about the turmoil in the fire department ran in the Canyon Courier, the board also decided to retain the services of Peter Webb Public Relations for six months, at a cost of up to $5,000 per month. Soon consultants were billing the district for phone conferences with other consultants to work out a unified approach to the district's mushrooming interpersonal issues.

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