Eagle fire board axes another chief
EAGLE — Eagle’s fire district board fired its second chief in three years, and this one infuriated volunteer firefighters so much that three resigned on the spot and several others said they’d be gone by the end of the week.
While several of now-former chief John Patterson’s supporters spoke on his behalf, refuting some of the board’s accusations, none of Patterson’s detractors showed their faces at Monday’s meeting.
Public hearing, not private
Patterson bravely chose to have the two-hour hearing in a public meeting, instead of a private session.
“I would encourage that any time a chief has a performance forum, that it is done in public,” he said.
Alex Mintling, chairman of the five-member board, insisted that Monday’s hearing was not a trial or debate. After the board emerged from its private session to discuss Patterson’s fate, Mintling expressed respect for Patterson.
“Chief, we have had our differences. For your way with the community and the way you treat individuals, I commend you. It’s a difficult decision,” Mintling said.
And then Mintling, along with board members Ted Weber and Eric Peterson, fired him. Board members Mikel Kerst and Johnnette Phillips voted to retain Patterson as chief.
Firefighter Tammi Hunt was so upset when the three board members fired Patterson that she yanked off her fire department uniform shirt and threw it on the board’s table in front of Mintling, storming out of the room in her dark blue pants and T-shirt.
“There are a lot of paid staff in this fire department who need to grow up,” Hunt told the board during the hearing. “Some of them were involved in running former chief Jon Asper. Now that they’re being disciplined and things are not going their way, they’re crying. They go around the chiefs and captains and go to the board. You allow it to happen, and that should not happen.”
Taking some blame
Patterson, who admitted his mouth sometimes gets him in trouble, said he created some of his own problems.
The board accused him of using profanity and violating the fire department’s harassment policy by allegedly making disparaging remarks about sexual orientation and practices.
However, several Eagle firefighters rallied to his defense. They blamed the board for any problems the department might be having by allowing a few malcontents to break the chain of command and complain directly to the board.
Jeff Williams served 22 years with the Eagle fire department, retiring in 2014. He said he remembered firefighters building their own equipment and occasionally jump starting trucks before responding to a call.
“Today, this organization is one that has cutting-edge equipment and can guarantee a response with a fully trained and fully equipped crew at a minute’s notice,” Williams wrote in a letter to the board. “It saddens me, however, that while we have put so much effort into supporting those hardware pillars of the department, our board of directors have put so little effort into supporting the people.”
Williams said statements by board members could be considered slanderous. He said the department’s personnel issues stem directly from this and the previous board of directors.
“I think this board should seriously consider the cleanliness of their own house before deciding to clean others,” Williams wrote.
The board also took salvos from other Eagle firefighters, who said Patterson was “hamstrung” by the board.
“It could be a great department, and leadership begins with the board,” Hunt said.
Among the accusations
The board accused Patterson of failing to go to fire chiefs meetings and failing to maintain relationships with other chiefs. Not true, said the other chiefs who attended Monday’s meeting.
“I’m proud of how far we have come in terms of working together,” said Justin Kirkland, Gypsum fire chief.
Rock Creek Chief Britta Horn said Patterson has never missed a chiefs meeting.
Ross Wilmore is the U.S. Forest Service’s fire management officer for the White River National Forest. His area includes all of the federal land in Eagle and Summit counties.
“He is not only a regular attender, he’s a leader. He gives sage advice and is a pleasure to work with,” Wilmore said.
The board said Patterson used profanity when he threw a trash can after a firefighter failed to empty it after being directed to do so.
The board also said he used profanity when he took a backpack away from a firefighter after a wildland fire, telling him to go home and get some rest because he’d soon have to go out again.
Firefighters said board president Mintling directed Patterson to replace the station’s flag pole. Instead of spending the money to replace it, Eagle firefighters painted the pole.
An ice maker in the upstairs refrigerator doesn’t work, and three of the board members claimed that counts as part of Patterson’s failure to maintain the station. Firefighters pointed out that the station has a commercial ice maker, and they decided they could make do until they could afford a new one.
Patterson, who is recovering from his own bout with cancer, was also accused of referring to a firefighter as “cancer boy.”
“I am not about to pick on any cancer survivor,” Patterson said. “I have my own health problems and I wouldn’t want someone to kick sand in my face.”
Patterson said he worked about 80 hours a week and responded to after-hours calls.
Phillips said Patterson received no severance package, and even though some board members complained about his verbal and written communication skills, he was not given performance reviews or leadership and management training.
Patterson was placed on administrative leave Jan. 9. The board fired him during Monday night’s meeting.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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