Too Many Fire Chiefs

After it was all over — the emergency meetings and votes of no confidence, the suspensions and resignations, the backroom intrigues and public squabbles, culminating in the ouster of the fire chief — Charlie Neppell decided it was time to give credit where credit was due. So when the board of directors of the Evergreen Fire Protection District held their monthly meeting in April, Neppell was there to suggest that they seemed to be doing a bang-up job of destroying their own volunteer fire department.

In a sprawling mountain community with little municipal government to speak of, special districts like the EFPD are the true seat of local power. Yet fire-district board meetings have never attracted much of an audience — until last month. Despite the fact that the gathering had been scheduled at the unfriendly hour of eight o'clock on a Friday morning, the room was quickly populated by dozens of firefighters and their families, many eager to obtain official confirmation of the resignation of Chief Joel Janov, reported just hours earlier. Reporters were also on hand, as well as bona fide representatives of the public. The best the five members of the board could do was hunker down and get on with it.

Public comment was limited to three minutes per speaker. But that didn't discourage Neppell. He stood and delivered a concise recitation of what, in his view, were the board's greatest sins. The board had sown the seeds of conflict in 2005 by naming Janov, then the elected chief of the volunteers, to the newly created position of paid fire chief, a $95,000-a-year job with specific qualifications that Janov didn't have. The board had hired waves of consultants and conducted an extensive survey of departmental strife, the results of which were "held up and covered up."

The board had sought to intimidate its critics and stifle free debate. It had tried to mess with the very nature of a volunteer fire department, referring to the firefighters as "noncompensated employees" and seeking control over operational decisions. Worse, the resulting turmoil had turned the volunteers against each other — leading, among other things, to the suspension of three officers for speaking their mind and the termination of one Charlie Neppell, formerly a department lieutenant. Neppell's outspokenness had gotten him removed from his post — not by Janov, but by the elected leadership of the volunteers.

"Trust is easy to lose and difficult to regain," Neppell said.

The boardmembers sat glumly through the scolding, offering no response. They didn't respond to direct questions raised by other speakers, either. When the public comment period ended, EFPD president Phil Shanley, a local business leader who's been on the board since 1975, announced the resignation of the absent Chief Janov, thanked him for twelve years of service as a volunteer — and quickly moved on to other business, the purchase of a $3,800 floor scrubber.

A consultant was summoned to discuss the selection process for a new chief. She turned to the audience for questions. Shanley abruptly cut off the first one.

"The time for public comment is over," he said.

Shanley's proclamation didn't sit well with the crowd; a few people soon left in a huff. It also seemed to alarm the newest boardmember, Charles "Chick" Dykeman, a retired funeral director with a long history of serving on community boards. Recently appointed to fill a vacancy, Dykeman tried to end the meeting on a conciliatory note, assuring everyone that the district had no intention of replacing its volunteers with paid firefighters.

"We are making extraordinary efforts to reach a balanced point," he said. "I am reminded of a Chinese proverb: 'There's no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare.'"

Dykeman's remarks drew applause. For some in the room, the conflict had been about the fire chief, and now that he'd resigned, armistice was a distinct possibility. Others weren't so sure. After all, the district board had backed Chief Janov's play, and some of the most bruising battles of the past sixteen months had been fought over the board's seeming indifference to the volunteers' concerns about where all this was heading. Would another paid chief really get things back on track?

Janov himself, no longer an active part of the debate, took a different view, of course. He had never considered his problems with the volunteers to be a matter of his popularity, or lack of same; rather, they were a knee-jerk reaction to the necessary and logical changes he'd tried to bring to the operation. "There's a real story here about the sociology of volunteerism," he says now. "This notion that an organization founded on real good civic merits evolves into something that exists for the sake of its own existence, with resistance to being accountable to the people it's serving."

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast