County fire chief’s salary, contract in dispute

Wednesday, July 23, 2008 | 8:23 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — As the Boone County Fire Protection District Board of Directors prepares to decide how much to pay Fire Chief Steve Paulsell in the future, significant questions have come up about the legality of the contract he’s been working under since March 2005.

Board members have no proof that an official vote was ever taken to authorize the contract. Although one past member said the board approved the contract in April 2004, the record shows it was still being revised — with increasingly higher salaries — through March 2005 when it finally was signed by Paulsell and then board Chairman Willis Smith.  Two current board members said they are uncertain why the salary increased during that time.

The board standardized all fire district salaries except Paulsell’s last week after accepting revised salary ranges from a committee appointed to review district pay rates. It held off on any decisions about Paulsell’s salary. The chief now makes about $25,000 more than the recommended $152,991 top salary for his post.

In December 2007, board members personally delivered Paulsell a letter notifying him that his contract would no longer be recognized. That move came after a St. Louis lawyer conducted an independent review of the document and declared it invalid, in part because there was no record of an official board vote authorizing it. Paulsell did not respond to the letter.

The fact that his contract is considered invalid leaves the board more flexibility in adjusting Paulsell’s salary now, as the board debates whether to freeze the chief’s pay, reduce it to fit the salary range or do nothing. The contract would have prohibited the board from cutting Paulsell’s pay without an across-the-board reduction of all district salaries. If it did, Paulsell could have chosen to be terminated and to receive his severance package, which board member Shelly Dometrorch estimated was worth about $400,000.


Contract declared invalid

Details surrounding the authorization of the chief’s contract, which was drafted by fire district legal counsel Jeff Parshall, remain a mystery to both past and present board members. Dometrorch said the board first took the contract to Parshall to review its legality in late 2006. Parshall, however, hired an outside attorney to review it because he wrote it in the first place.

Dometrorch said the St. Louis attorney, who she and other board members have refused to identify, spent several months going over details of the contracts and of board meeting minutes.

Current board Chairman John Gordon said he is withholding the St. Louis lawyer’s name “because of potential litigation. ... The name will be given after we consult Parshall and (the St. Louis) attorney.”

Paulsell’s personal attorney, Tom Harrison, took notes at last Thursday’s board meeting, when the public offered input on Paulsell’s pay. The board, however, took no action at that meeting.

Former fire board member John Richard said he recalls voting during the April 2, 2004, board meeting to authorize Smith to sign Paulsell’s contract, but he did not remember a precise salary figure. At the time, the board included Richard, Myrtle Rapp and Smith, who died in January 2006.

Rapp said Tuesday that she doesn’t remember specifically when she voted to allow Smith to sign the contract.

“Every time we reviewed his contract, the attorney would read it, and we would vote for Willis to sign it,” Rapp said.

Neither Richard nor Rapp said they ever spoke to Parshall directly about the contract or its revisions.

Official minutes from the April 2, 2004, meeting — which were submitted to the board by then-secretary to the board and  Assistant Fire Chief Sharon Curry —  show only that Paulsell’s contract was discussed and that it was amended to provide whole life insurance, to allow him to accrue vacation time beyond one year and to extend his retirement benefits two years beyond employment severance. That motion passed unanimously, but the minutes show no vote authorizing the entire contract.

Gordon, who joined the board at its May 13, 2004, meeting, said no action was taken between that date and Smith’s signing of the contract in March 2005.

Richard said he was unsure why the contract took nearly a full year to finalize after the board had seen it.

“I can’t imagine it took that long unless there was something that held it up,” Richard said.

Dometrorch recently showed the Missourian three drafts of Paulsell’s contract that were produced long after the April 2004 board meeting at which it was discussed. Each reflected a higher salary for the chief.

“I haven’t received an explanation for the changes,” Dometrorch said.

The first draft, dated October 2004 — about seven months after the April board meeting — shows the chief’s salary in print at $153,435.14. That figure, however, is scratched out, and the number $160,905.21 is penciled in above it.

The second draft, dated December 2004, shows the $160,905.21 salary figure in print. But a final draft of the contract dated March 24, 2005  — nearly a year after Paulsell’s pay was discussed by the board — set his salary at $177,058.44. It is signed only by Smith and Paulsell. That document has served as the basis for his pay ever since.

Parshall refused to answer questions about the contract.

“The board of directors is my client, and any discussions we have are confidential,” he said.

Dometrorch said she is trying to figure out how Paulsell’s salary reached its current level.

“It is not clear why his salary is what it is to begin with,” Dometrorch said. She added later that “Parshall said his office created the contract based on what he was told to put in it.”

Gordon, too, is seeking an explanation. “That needs to be looked at for why there were different versions.”

Board member John Williamson, who joined the board four months after Paulsell was told his contract was invalid, said he has seen no reports from the St. Louis lawyer who reviewed it. Gordon said Williamson will be given a copy, but board members thus far have declined to provide one to the Missourian.

Williamson said he believes the contract is valid, and he criticized his board colleagues for “micromanaging” the district. “This is why we have lawyers to deal with it.”

Paulsell did not respond for comment.


A sense of urgency

Gordon and other board members said it’s important to resolve the issue of Paulsell’s pay quickly because they must approve a final budget by next month so they can set the district’s property tax rate by Sept. 1.

“We have until the third week of August to get the budget finalized, and we need to get serious about how we are going to spend our money,” Gordon said. “There is no question that money is getting tighter and tighter as we move forward.”

Williamson said the board is “nitpicking” and needs to move on to more important budget matters.

The board will hold a closed meeting at 4:30 p.m. Thursday and an open meeting at 5:30 p.m. at the fire district headquarters, 2201 I-70 Drive N.W. Dometrorch said the closed meeting would involve discussion of Paulsell’s pay, but she would not elaborate.

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