During a robustly attended meeting featuring an engaged public, the Penn Valley Fire Protection District board of directors elected not to hire a consultant to find a replacement for Fire Chief Gene Vander Plaats.
Vander Plaats has indicated he will retire at the end of the fiscal year and Penn Valley Fire has outlined a goal of having a successor in place by April.
The board appeared poised to approve a contract with Crabtree Consulting Services to help gather potential candidates to replace Vander Plaats, but several members of the audience took issue with the expenditure of $5,000-$6,000 for the consulting services.
Penn Valley resident John Pelonio said the board needs to develop a pool of candidates, including qualified people outside the district, but should explore ways that are free, including posting the job on websites and placing advertisements in publications that are consistently read by firefighters.
The board ultimately agreed, as Chairman Kurt Grundel and Rick Nolle said, it should attempt to garner candidates on its own and only resort to a consultant if their efforts fail to generate desirable outcomes. David Farrell and Bill Neville voted in favor of hiring a consultant.
“This is the single most important thing we do as a board — to hire the chief executive officer for this organization,” Farrell said.
Penn Valley Fire has been beset by controversy recently, mostly centering on the performance and qualifications of Vander Plaats as chief.
In October, a cadre of citizens came to the meeting and denounced Vander Plaats and the board, saying the chief lacked the necessary qualifications to run an incident command, decimated the volunteer firefighting force and the board granted undue pay raises to the chief over the course of his eight-year career.
Vander Plaats refuted such allegations, saying his extensive experience spoke for itself and the demise of volunteer firefighters was a result of increasingly stringent state regulations regarding volunteer forces and not any willful act or negligence on his part.
Grundel said Vander Plaats received raises on par with others in the district.
On Tuesday, several members of the community showed up to voice support for Vander Plaats, including former firefighters Bruce Puphal and Bob Blackburn, who both said they witnessed the chief administer a recent fire fight on Wildflower Drive with demonstrable competence.
Members of the Penn Valley Fire board penned letters to the editor in The Union and two other local publications — The Penn Valley Courier and the Lake Wildwood Independent — one of which drew the ire of Bill Gassaway, who has been a vocal critic of the fire district and has used public comment to rail against what he perceives as incompetence in leadership positions that endanger district constituents.
On Tuesday, he accused Director Bob Webster of libel for penning an op-ed that dismissed Gassaway as a “disgruntled ex-paid call firefighter.”
“He had quit the district in 2005 because of differences with department policy and his inability to accept direction from anyone; he was never fired,” Webster wrote.
“Since then, Bill Gassaway has been on a personal crusade to cause mistrust, dissension and unrest among the career firefighters and in the community itself.”
Gassaway said Webster lied about him in the op-ed and questioned why the district expended so much energy attacking him.
“You spent a whole month retaliating against me about approaching you with questions, which are logical questions and ought to be asked of you,” Gassaway said. “And then you distract people in the paper with a bunch of lies.”
Gassaway did not specify which of Webster’s assertions were not true that he deemed to be libelous.
Wyatt Howell, president of the Local 3800 union, also questioned the board regarding why they saw fit to mount a public relations attack against one of their constituents.
“To me your behavior is unprofessional,” he said. “Board members are not supposed to attack members of the public, your job is to listen to their concerns.”
To contact Staff Writer Matthew Renda, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4239.