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Controversy erupts over election

By Staff | Jan 11, 2010

A routine annual report about the Blue Earth Fire Department erupted into a heated discussion over how a new fire chief should be selected.

Past Fire Chief Terry Campbell, and new Fire Chief Roger Davis, were both giving the report to the Blue Earth City Council at last Monday’s regular meeting.

When they came to the part concerning the newly elected department officers, which included Davis as chief, City Administrator Kathy Bailey interrupted.

Bailey pointed out a policy passed by the council in May of 2008 concerning how a new chief and other officers would be chosen.

Instead of being elected by the department as a whole, the city administrator would work with the current chief to determine who should be selected, and that choice would be voted on by the council.

“He would be selected, not elected,” Bailey said. “Much as other department heads are hired. We would look at who is the most qualified for the job.”

That caused a heated response from two other firemen who were present at the meeting. Assistant Chief Jim Wirkus and Nick Bleess.

“We were never informed there was a final determination on this,” Wirkus said. “We voted on Wednesday for the officers we want.”

Bleess added that the firemen are never informed of what isgoing on, and that is one of the reasons they voted in a new chief.

“We get nothing in writing,” he said, “and now we are blindsided by this. This is why we wanted new officers.”

Bleess also suggested having the city administrator attend fire department meetings.

Campbell said he had been informed of the policy and had brought it to the firemen. However, some of the firemen pointed out several problem areas in the policy.

“I took it back to the city and I guess I never checked back,” Campbell said.

Several city councilmen voiced their opinion that they needed to back up the firemens’ decision.

“It may have been done incorrectly, but these guys did not intend to do anything wrong,” Councilman Dan Brod said. “So we need to honor it, and then get it fixed for next year.”

Councilman Glenn Gaylord agreed.

“We should support the whole fire department decision,” he said. “They should know more than us who is qualified to lead.”

Mayor Rob Hammond suggested delaying the matter for two weeks until the next meeting, so that the administrator, city attorney and fire department officers could meet and discuss it.

The council, however, decided to make a decision on Monday. However, it took two votes to do it.

A motion to support the firemens’ election and accept the new officers first had to survive an amendment vote.

Councilman Dick Maher proposed an amendment to wait two weeks to make the decision. That proposal failed 4-3 with Maher, Hammond and Councilman Les Wiborg voting yes, and the rest voting no.

The original motion, to accept the slate of officers as elected by the fire department, then passed unanimously.

The council still agreed the matter needs more study.

“I don’t think this is something that can be solved in two weeks,” Brod said. “I just didn’t remember reading the part about the administrator and fire chief selecting a new chief.”

Both Campbell and Davis told the council they were fine with whatever plan is worked out.

“I’ve wanted to step down after 14 years of being chief,” Campbell said.

Campbell did not run for chief, and Davis was on the ballot unopposed.