Nevada County fire district postpones interim chief position (Updated) |

Nevada County fire district postpones interim chief position (Updated)

The Union archives
Jorn Hart | The Union

For at least the next 16 days, Nevada County Consolidated Fire District will not have an acting fire chief.

Instead, its highest ranking firefighters will run things with the advisory support of Grass Valley’s fire chief while the elected officials who represent the district evaluate the most qualified candidates.

With Division Chief David Ray’s retirement Tuesday, the plan for the next couple of weeks was outlined by a divided board of directors at a special meeting convened to vote on a resolution to appoint Jerald Johnson as the interim chief.

Several of the directors expressed dismay Monday that Johnson was proposed for the position — noting that the district had contracted $28,000 with consultant Ron Coleman to seek candidates and that Johnson was not among those he discovered.

Firefighters in the district reportedly suggested Johnson as a candidate, said Chairman Warren Knox and Director David Hanson. While none of the directors had seen the list Coleman allegedly compiled, Knox told The Union that the consultant had reviewed Johnson’s resume and deemed him qualified to act as interim chief.

“I don’t recall the direction of the board to appoint you two to go out and find an interim chief,” said Director Bill Habblett. “I think the process is upside down.”

Several of the directors expressed reluctance to approve hiring Johnson, with a $550 per day compensation structure for a period of no less than 60 days that could be extended 30 days by a board vote.

“This is too short of a notice,” said Director Keith Grueneberg. “I’m very uncomfortable with this whole situation.”

In addition to a proposed $90 per day compensation for housing, the overall figures added up to a nearly $40,000 district expenditure, not including Coleman’s contract, to bring Johnson on board as interim chief.

“That’s over $10,000 a month plus per diem,” Habblett said.

Other than paying for a lunch, Knox noted that the district had not paid any expenses interacting with Johnson thus far.

District officials noted that payment for an interim chief’s salary is available in the department’s budget and Johnson said he did not need the district to provide benefits, because he is already a retired pension annuitant.

But with four of the directors reluctant to move forward, the board postponed hiring an interim chief until its May 16 meeting. Until then, the board chose to delegate Grueneberg and Hanson to compare Johnson’s resume to Coleman’s recommendations and return with the top three options.

Those then would be interviewed individually behind closed doors and a candidate will be chosen, whose compensation will be debated in public, according to board clerk Nicole Long.

“I would like to see them slow things down rather than decide something on a 4-3 vote,” Johnson told The Union, noting he is still interested in the position.

In March, Nevada County Consolidated Fire District put forth a special election to implement a fire tax that amounted to $52 a year for most property owners. Eight months after the approval of its special tax, the fire district’s board restored salary step increases and other benefits to its firefighters, drawing criticism from the public and one of its board members.

Former Chief Tim Fike was officially ousted in late June 2012 when the Consolidated board of directors voted 6-1 to award Fike a $75,000 severance package, following a physical altercation in March with a fire mechanic.

Afterward, Ray was appointed to division chief, filling in an administrative capacity until his retirement Tuesday. At Monday’s meeting, Grass Valley Fire Chief Tony Clarabut agreed to advise the district’s battalion chiefs, as he has done when Ray has vacationed, until an interim chief is selected.

“(T)he focus within Nevada County Consolidated Fire District at the administrative level has shifted to issues of district governance, employment disputes and public bickering amongst elected officials and management,” said the Nevada County Professional Firefighters union in a statement Tuesday. (To read the entire statement, click HERE)

“These points of focus are appearing to have adverse effects on the provision of emergency services, making it seem as though they are less efficient and hampering the day-to-day operations of multiple fire agencies in western Nevada County,” the firefighters said.

“The truth is that an exorbitant amount of time and resources are being devoted to a seemingly never-ending litany of problems encompassing employee sensitivity, potential disputes and a punitive recall campaign.”

The firefighters called on all stakeholders to make the delivery of these services their sole priority.

“There is nothing broke with the way we fight fires,” Knox said Monday.

To contact Staff Writer Christopher Rosacker, email or call 530-477-4236.

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