Too Many Fire Chiefs

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

Janov defends tapping outside expertise to get the job done. "Any resemblance to any degree of professional business practice is seen as a threat by some," he says. "Why would any organization want to leave it to the uninformed masses to make decisions about conducting surveys when you have people out there with tremendous experience to help guide us?"

Jim Licko of Webb Public Relations says that the district has only a part-time public information officer and needed help getting its message out. "We're helping them out with an internal and external newsletter," he explains. "We're doing question-and-answer sessions with them, scheduling speaking opportunities with homeowner association boards and PTAs and things like that. It's pretty simple stuff."

Shanley readily defends the decision to bring in outsiders to help the board with "personnel matters" and communications. "We're all volunteers as well," he points out. "These professionals can do things neither the staff nor the board is capable of doing. I certainly couldn't write a newsletter."

While the board and the chief worked on a joint communication strategy, the volunteers could reach no consensus on how to proceed. Some wanted to handle the conflict in-house, if possible. Others were eager to go public, with the aim of enlisting citizens' support for a change of direction. Last fall, Pidcock and Neppell ran afoul of their colleagues over their scathing criticism of the chief; Pidcock, for example, had fired off an e-mail to the bylaw committee denouncing Janov as "a man who has created a job for himself through lies, printed jargon, scare tactics, political positioning and biased consulting groups."

Janov and the district board reportedly wanted to terminate Pidcock and Neppell, but they had no direct power to fire them. The volunteer leadership decided to suspend them instead. Undeterred, Neppell and Pidcock, along with volunteer George Kling, founded BEST, a recall committee targeting Janov's supporters on the district board. Neppell says the effort didn't get off the ground last fall because the volunteer leadership kept urging him to hold off. "Unfortunately, we've got some leaders who will negotiate forever, and they thought we should give [Janov] a chance," he says.

Most of the volunteers weren't keen on airing their laundry outside the firehouse, but it's clear they shared BEST's dismal opinion of the chief. In November, 79 percent of the membership voted no confidence in Chief Janov; a no-confidence vote on the district board tallied 84 percent. It was a clear rebuke of the reorganization effort — and an indicator of how low morale had become.

The no-confidence vote, coupled with the threat of a recall campaign, apparently caught the board's attention. Three weeks later, on December 18, Shanley announced that the board was beginning a national search for a new, full-time paid fire chief. Janov would remain in charge during the transition, however long that would be. A "transition services letter" dated December 28, signed by Janov and Shanley and recently obtained by Westword, states that the arrangement would end if the chief or the board "finds that the situation with the volunteers begins to deteriorate to a level that is no longer workable." It also states that Janov would no longer be involved in "strategic planning and other long-term goals."

Keeping Janov on the job in a limited fashion was another misstep by the board, says George Goldbach, a former chief of Denver's West Metro Fire Rescue. Goldbach, who has 45 years of experience in fire services, was brought in by the district last fall to help negotiate an end to the impasse with the volunteers; he quit two months ago, he says, frustrated with delays in the search for a new chief and disagreements with the board's management consultants. "Their consultants knew nothing about the fire service," he says. "You really have to know about it or have been in it to deal with the issues something like this presents."

Janov managed to stay on the job another four months — longer, it turned out, than the members of BEST. In March, as the chief's critics continued to press their case in letters to the editor, Pidcock and Neppell found themselves suspended again, along with Kling. Pidcock and Kling decided to resign from the department. Neppell was terminated over a letter to the Canyon Courier that was never published.

Part of the damage done by the turmoil of the past year, Neppell suggests, is the way the conflict has chilled discourse among the volunteers. "We used to have great e-mail exchanges on everything in the department," he says. "That all stopped. Most of the officer meetings were taken up with political issues, this guy and his agenda. It used to be we talked about how to best fight fires."

Phil Shanley believes the so-called bad blood between the board and the volunteers comes down to a series of misunderstandings, many of them semantic in nature. All the loose talk about transitions and how a "combination" department should run gave folks the impression that Evergreen Fire/Rescue might some day bring in paid firefighters to take the place of the volunteers, and that was never the board's intention, he insists.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help