Meetings called by Fire Protection District kept quiet

Friday, November 21, 2008 | 2:01 p.m. CST; updated 4:58 p.m. CST, Saturday, November 22, 2008

COLUMBIA — All that anyone will say about the flurry of closed meetings called this month by the board of the Boone County Fire Protection District is that they are about a "personnel matter."

At 4 p.m. Friday, another such meeting took place at the office of the Fire Protection District's attorney, Jeff Parshall, amid rumors that Chief Steve Paulsell is on his way out.

Friday's meeting at Parshall's office was the fourth in five weeks. Another closed meeting is scheduled for noon Tuesday at the fire district headquarters, prior to the regular open board meeting at 5:30 p.m.

The board is optimistic that the meetings will lead to a vote very soon. But on what, they won't say.

"Progress has definitely been made," board member Shelly Dometrorch said. "I am hoping there will be a conclusion this evening."

The intense secrecy surrounding the meetings has led to wider speculation, which the board has attempted to squelch, among fire district staff.

"There was some fear at the fire district that (employees) would lose their job and that Task Force One would be moved," Dometrorch said. "Once something like that gets started, it pretty much runs through the whole place.

"We need to make sure that the staff and the general public know that service will continue as usual, and the task force is safe," Dometrorch said. "Everybody needs to calm down."

Board Chairman John Gordon also expressed frustration about the rumors and the board's need to stay silent. He said he hoped the staff's concerns had been resolved.

"We called some staff members and personally spoke to them," board member Dave Griggs said. "We talked about the unfounded rumors."

Dometrorch said the local media have been reporting that these meetings are likely about changing Paulsell's salary, but "that has nothing to do with it."

"There is a reason the state Sunshine Law allows for (meetings on) personnel issues to be closed," Dometrorch said. "If we say anything, it will adversely affect what we can accomplish."

Back in July, the board standardized a pay range for all fire district staff members, with the exception of Paulsell, who makes about $25,000 more than the approved range. Matters are complicated by stipulations in Paulsell's contract that say he can terminate the contract and receive severance pay if the board cuts his salary without cutting the salaries of all paid staff.

However, the board has not recognized the contract since December 2007. The contract was determined to be unenforceable by Robert Krehbiel, who was contracted to review Paulsell's contract.

Since then, the board has discovered that Paulsell's contracted salary of $177,058 was based on his pay for 2004, which included about $37,800 in unexplained bonuses. The board is working to determine how the errors were made and how the salary figure became the basis of his 2004 contract.

Krehbiel gave the board his counsel on the matter over the phone during the first closed meeting at Parshall's office on Oct. 13, and he attended the second meeting in person on Nov. 14. He did not attend the third meeting on Wednesday and was not present Friday. The board has been in contact with Paulsell's attorney Tom Harrison by phone during these meetings.

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