COLUMBIA — On April 8, Boone County voters will decide who will fill two new seats on the Boone County Fire Protection District Board of Directors.
Historically, elections for the board have been largely uncontested and drawn few voters. Then, in 2006, the Fire Protection District’s troubles raised interest in the elections to record levels, as Shelly Dometrorch, promising changes, beat out Don Farris.
This year promises to draw even more interest. Amid lingering controversy about fire district salaries, spending and accounting, five candidates are vying to join the board. The outcome could decide the balance of power between the current board and Fire Chief Steve Paulsell.
Before the current board of John Gordon, Dave Griggs and Dometrorch came together, the fire board was criticized for rubber-stamping every Paulsell proposal. In 2005, amidst accusations of favoritism and financial mismanagement by the district staff, and pressure from Concerned Citizens for Boone County and others in the community, the board of Myrtle Rapp, John Gordon and Willis Smith unanimously passed a resolution to allow fire district voters to decide on expanding the board.
“There were two main reasons why I voted to put the resolution on the ballot,” said Gordon, who was elected to the board in 2004. “First, there was interest in the district community to expand the board from three to five. Secondly, I supported it because I feel that five heads are better than three to decide issues.”
Voters overwhelmingly approved the expansion of the board in April 2006, with only Gordon remaining on the board. Dometrorch was elected to fill Rapp’s vacancy, and Griggs was appointed to serve the remainder of Smith’s term after he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in January 2006.
The current board candidates are clear about their views on Paulsell. Phyllis Fugit, John Sam Williamson and Mickey Nichols describe themselves as strong supporters of Paulsell.. Williamson and Nichols have known Paulsell for decades and Fugit said that she has met Paulsell at “various political functions.”
The other two candidates, Mike McMillen and Mike Becker, say they want to establish stronger, more transparent oversight of the fire district. McMillen says he is acquainted with Paulsell from work McMillen did with the Missouri Fire Training Institute.“In a district of this size, it would be difficult to not either know or be familiar with Chief Paulsell,” said Griggs.
However, Griggs said, “Just because you know someone doesn’t mean that if you see a problem in the organization that you don’t fix it.”
Voters will decide on April 8 whether to elect Griggs, though he’s running unopposed, and who should fill the two new seats.
“I would like to think that I am running unopposed because of a job well done, but I think the more important thing it says is that the board of directors and the fire district have regained the confidence of the community,” Griggs said.
As for the two additional positions created in 2006, the top vote-getter will serve six years on the board, and the second highest vote-getter will receive a four-year term. The newly elected members will receive $75 per month for their work on the board.
Phyllis Fugit, 62, has lived in Boone County since 1966 and currently lives outside of Rocheport. She has served in a number of labor organizations, is a member of the League of Women Voters, and is chair of the Boone County Democratic Central Committee. She is also an experienced campaigner.
“This is a nonpartisan position, but you still go about it in a similar way,” she said.
Fugit says she is running for the Board of Directors because she has had to call the fire district for help a few times and has seen them in action.
“Sometime in 2006, a fire started in our pasture, the wind started to blow it towards our propane tanks. They were there to prevent a catastrophe,” Fugit said, “I have seen how good they are.”
She said she started thinking about running back in 2006 when voters approved the expansion. As part of the board, she said she would work toward improving the image of the district after the last few years of controversy.
“I want to help them move forward to new and better things,” she said.
Fugit was vague about her relationship with Paulsell, stating that they have met at various political events, though she couldn’t remember what any of them were.
“I think (the chief and I) would be on really good terms, I don’t see any problems,” she said. “He has done a great job with all of the volunteers, recruiting and training. I am sure I will disagree on some things; I’m sure we will be able to come to some kind of agreement on those issues.”
James “Mickey” Nichols, 59, has been a volunteer with the fire district for over 25 years and has owned Mickey’s Auto Parts in Hallsville for the same period of time. He has reached the rank of captain and works as safety officer at fire district headquarters. He has decided to step down from fighting fires but wants to remain involved.
“I am still interested in the fire district, I want to still help, and I felt I could help in this area,” Nichols said.
Nichols feels that his many years as a firefighter will be an advantage as a board member because he already knows the value and use of fire district equipment. He also says being a long-time business owner is relevant to board service.
“For me, the most important thing to take care of is the firefighters themselves,” he said. “We need to provide them with the best equipment and training possible.”
But he also wants the board to examine the placement of new fire stations, though he emphasized that he thinks “the district is running very well right now.”
“I am not looking to make any big changes,” Nichols said.
Steve Paulsell has been chief the entire time Nichols has been a volunteer with the fire district. “I think we are good friends, we don’t have any ill feelings that I know of,” he said. “We don’t go out together and watch a basketball game, but we have a good work relationship.”
John Sam Williamson, 59, lives on a sixth-generation family farm near Huntsdale, south of Columbia.
His interest in the fire district is decades old, he said, and he has known Paulsell since high school.
“It is no secret we are friends,” he said.
“I was in junior high when they began the district,” he said. “They started very simply with an old World War II truck, in an old chicken house. They have grown really big over the years.”
Williamson said he has never been a firefighter but has helped the district a number of times over the years campaign for various bond issues. He said he has also attended board meetings for over a year, so he is familiar with the current issues.
Williamson has created an election committee to help with his campaign. Some of them are former board members and former county officers, though he would not name them.
“This is a little different than running for something like the state representative election though; no one is planning to raise thousands of dollars,” he said. “This campaign is lower key.”
Williamson said that he has experience working to get bonds issued as the fire district often must do. He cites the upcoming renegotiation of the territorial agreement between the Columbia Fire Department and the fire district as one of the most important upcoming issues. He is also concerned about the upcoming report of the Salary Review Committee headed by Dometrorch.
Williamson said the board’s job is to provide oversight, have monthly meetings and approve budgets.
“It is not the board’s job to micromanage everything, that is what the staff is for,” Williamson said, “We hire a professional staff, that knows what they are doing, to do the research and make recommendations on the technical things for the district.”
Paulsell has done “a tremendous job” as chief, Williamson said. “He is a very hands-on person, he likes to know what is going on, and he responds to a lot of the calls. He is often times at the scenes. I think it inspires the volunteers to see the chief involved.”
Mike McMillen, 59, of Midway, is the former owner of Buck Creek Barbecue Sauces. He has also worked as a lobbyist for Shelter Insurance, representing the company in state and federal legislature. He has served on a number of boards and committees over the years, including an advisory committee of the Missouri Fire Training Institute, affiliated with MU.
McMillen said he knows a thing or two about the bylaws and thinks the fire district’s need work. Dometrorch asked McMillen to review the fire district’s bylaws in the summer of 2006.
“I found that in some cases the bylaws are in violation with state law, or at least contradict state law,” he said. “They were written at a time when the district used citizen band radios, they were revised in the late ’80s, but they are badly in need of updating,” he said.
Eighteen months after McMillen was asked to examine them, the bylaws have still not been changed.
“I am not criticizing the board, they have been dealing with other issues,” he said. “But, one of the reasons I am running is to get started on them. There comes a point in time when you have to fix your foundation, and bylaws are the foundation of any organization. Until you repair your foundation, your organization will never be strong.”
McMillen said in reviewing the bylaws, he interviewed each current board member separately and asked what issues were most important for each. “At the top of the list for each, independently, was financial accountability to the taxpayers,” McMillen said.
He said the experience helped him get a picture of where the district needs to go in the future.
McMillen said that Paulsell was one of the first people he ever met when he started lobbying in Jefferson City in 1980. They shared an interest in legislation aimed at stopping arson for profit. McMillen said they have maintained a professional relationship, including a shared stint on the advisory board of the Missouri Fire Training Institute.
“I think some previous board members may have had too close of a relationship with the chief, but that is not the case with the current board members now,” he said. “The present board has a professional relationship with the chief, as it should be. I would like to have a similar relationship.”
But he won’t be spending a lot of money on a fire board campaign. “It is supposed to be nonpartisan,” he said. “Anybody who spends a whole lot of money, I would have to question their motivation, quite frankly.”
Lloyd Michael Becker, 62, ran for the Missouri House of Representatives in 2004 and is retired from United Parcel Service where he was a union steward. “I was involved in a lot of negotiations, from representing individuals all the way up to contracts for the entire union,” Becker said.
Becker said that he decided to run after much discussion about the district with his breakfast group. “We spend a whole lot (of money) on some of these paid guys, but the volunteers receive little or nothing and have most of the risk,” he said. “We need to make sure that we take care of the volunteers, that they get the best of the best. After all, the district is not-a-for profit organization.”
One of Becker’s main goals is to investigate salaries closely. The distribution of resources between city and county fire departments is also an important issue, he said.
Becker has two main priorities as a would-be board member: “making sure that the firefighters get what they need, and the people of the county are protected.”
Becker said that he doesn’t know Paulsell and it doesn’t matter. “If it is him or anybody, I would be asking the same questions,” Becker said, “There is nothing vindictive about it, but things need to be looked at impartially. If it turns out that everything is being done great, I will be tickled pink. I am the type of guy who looks at the worst-case scenario and then I am pleasantly surprised when it comes out differently.”
Becker said the board should be vigilant. “The board is supposed to be the watchdog,” he said. “Their job is to make sure that everything runs up to snuff, and everything runs as good as possible.”