COLUMBIA — In a tearful goodbye, Boone County Fire Protection District Fire Chief Steve Paulsell announced his retirement Tuesday at a news conference in front of the Fire Protection District headquarters.
Paulsell, who has served with the fire district for 38 years, called his retirement “forced” and said it was not his desire to leave.
Although his retirement is effective Jan. 1, board member Dave Griggs said Paulsell will no longer be involved with fire district activities.
The settlement between Paulsell and the fire district's board of directors gives him a $300,000 severance package but stipulates that he must clear his office in two weeks. He was also given the remainder of his 2008 salary and retirement benefits.
In the document, the board released all claims against him. Both sides have agreed not to file any legal action, and all parties are barred from discussing the terms of the agreement.
The settlement signals the end of a long-standing controversy over Paulsell’s salary and contract, which have been called into question by board members in recent months.
While looking into Paulsell’s salary, board member Shelly Dometrorch discovered that he was erroneously paid about $37,800 extra in 2004. That figure, without explanation, was drafted into his contract, which set his pay at $177,058.
"The allegation and implication that I knowingly or intentionally took unearned funds from the fire district is 100 percent false," Paulsell said Tuesday.
He dismissed those controversies at the news conference, saying they have been “based on personal agendas, retaliation and power struggles.” He also attacked the board of directors for allegedly spending “well over $100,000” on attorneys and consultants to resolve the matter.
“With 13 years aggregate experience on the board, and with no actual fire experience, the majority of these board members have chosen to ignore my advice and counsel on many critical issues,” Paulsell said.
“I learned on Nov. 14, while I was out of town, that the board had made a settlement offer to me in return for my resignation,” he said.
Paulsell said the board forced him to make a rushed decision the night of Nov. 21.
"After 38 years of dedicated service, I would have expected — and I deserved — better," he said.
Dometrorch said the conversation didn't start in mid-November. "The conversation had been ongoing since at least Oct. 28," she said. "He responded back to us prior to Nov. 13."
"To insinuate that we did this quickly while he was out of town is untrue," Dometrorch said. "We were still redoing this agreement to accommodate him at 1 p.m. today."
Other board members didn't respond to Paulsell's comments, saying they had no opportunity to review them.
Paulsell said he offered to take a pay cut to stay on as fire chief.
The board standardized all fire district salaries except Paulsell’s in July after accepting revised salary ranges from a committee appointed to review district pay rates. The chief was making $25,000 more than the recommended $152,991 top salary for his post.
“I offered several times … to reduce my salary to match the board’s recently approved salary matrix,” Pausell said Tuesday. “The board rejected that offer.”
He said the board has damaged the fire district by forcing his retirement.
“Terrible wrongs have been committed against this organization,” he said. “Lies have been told, lives have been damaged, reputations have been tarnished.”
The board accepted Paulsell's retirement, according to a news release. Board Chairman John Gordon said the board had complete confidence in its staff and volunteers "to continue serving the citizens of the district."
Gordon said the board plans to appoint an interim chief within the next week.
Board member John Sam Williamson, who spoke after Paulsell at the news conference, said it was “a sad day for the Boone County Fire Protection District and for me personally.”
“Under his leadership as chief, this department has grown from a small rural fire department to become the premier fire district in Missouri,” Williamson said.
Williamson, the only current board member present at the news conference, said it was the hardest thing he has ever had to deal with — short of someone dying.
Paulsell closed his speech by praising fire district volunteers and said that while he is no longer able to participate in their activities, he will support the volunteers.
“But I will be in the crowd, cheering you on, proud of all you are doing and have done to serve those who need you,” he said. “You are my heroes."
A history of controversy
Late in his years as chief, disputes over personnel as well as financial controversies were raised, leading to an FBI investigation, personnel lawsuits and questions about Paulsell’s $177,000 salary, one of the nation's highest among fire chiefs.
Complaints raised by employees led to questions about Paulsell’s leadership style and favoritism toward secretary-turned-Assistant Chief Sharon Curry. She began working at the fire district in 1996 as a secretary, making $25,100.
By 2003, she was making $78,150, and by 2005, more than $93,000. Employees complained that Paulsell was having inappropriate relations with Curry at the fire district headquarters. Paulsell has since admitted to having sex with Curry at the headquarters. The two are now married.
In June 2005, Bruce Piringer, assistant chief in charge of training, confronted Paulsell about Curry’s treatment of other employees at a board meeting. In July, volunteer Battalion Chiefs Todd Burke and Jerry Jenkins, along with former volunteer Deb Diller, publicly aired complaints at a board meeting. Diller read a letter by Jenkins saying firefighters have been afraid to complain about Paulsell for fear of retaliation.
In early August 2005, Burke and Jenkins were dismissed after a closed meeting of the board of directors for undisclosed reasons. Chief of Staff Rob Brown’s position was eliminated entirely.
Paulsell said Tuesday those firings were “fully justified” and that the terminated employees and volunteers “were literally tearing (the) fire district apart.”
After those employees filed lawsuits, the fire district agreed to pay Piringer, Brown, Diller, Burke and Jenkins a combined $112,500 settlement.
According to previous Missourian reports, the FBI began investigating the fire district in 2005 for the potential misuse of taxpayer funds when it bought a $190,000 bronze statue. The fire district said at the time that the statue was paid for by seed money donated to the Perseverance Endowment, Inc., a nonprofit meant to help firefighters in financial trouble. Paulsell stood in front of the statue, a life-size depiction of volunteer firefighters, as he gave his retirement speech Tuesday.
Bomb squad recertification
Paulsell and Assistant Fire Chief Doug Westhoff were suspended in early April 2008 in connection with the fire district’s false application for FBI bomb squad recertification, which cost the district and the county its only FBI-certified bomb squad. Board Chairman John Gordon Sr., upon learning that the fire district could regain its certification, changed his vote and the suspensions of Paulsell and Westhoff were downgraded to written reprimands.
In a reassessment visit to the fire district in December, the FBI discovered that volunteer Kirk Hankins’ application to the FBI’s school contained false information. If the original application had been marked correctly, Hankins would not have qualified and the fire district would not have had a bomb squad.
The fire district board voted 3-2 to terminate the bomb squad on June 18 after its FBI certification was suspended, because the fire district lacked the necessary number of certified technicians, among other problems.
On July 3, four county public safety agencies decided to form a regional bomb squad for mid-Missouri. The bomb squad is set to be a multi-agency effort involving the Boone County Sheriff’s Department, the Columbia Fire Department, the Columbia Police Department and the MU Police Department. The fire district, the former sponsoring agency of the county’s only FBI-certified bomb squad, was not included in the new squad.
Salary and contract controversy
After the board standardized staff salaries with the exception of Paulsell's, Dometrorch began digging for information about how his salary reached its current level.
She discovered three drafts of Paulsell’s contract dating from October 2004 to March 2005, when the contract was signed by the late board chairman Willis Smith. Each draft showed an increase in the chief’s salary figure.
The first draft, dated October 2004, shows the chief’s salary in print at $153,435.14. That figure is scratched out with the number $160,905.21 penciled in above it.
The second draft, dated December 2004, shows the $160,905.21 salary figure in print. A final draft of the contract dated March 24, 2005, set his salary at $177,058.44. That document, signed only by Smith and Paulsell, has defined his pay ever since.
Fire district legal counsel Jeff Parshall refused to answer questions about the contract, and the board has yet to disclose an explanation for the changes in salary figures.
Board minutes indicate that no official vote was ever taken to authorize then-President Smith to execute the 2005 contract, although two former board members recall doing so.
In December 2007, an external legal review declared the contract invalid, in part because records didn't confirm an official vote.
In September, the board discovered that the fire district erroneously paid Paulsell $37,800 in 2004. Two separate payments were made, one of about $22,304 in December 2004 and a second, still unexplained payment of $15,500 that same year. Those payments augmented the salary that was written into his March 2005 contract: $177,058.44.
Griggs, who said in July he would disclose the specifics of the situation surrounding the chief’s salary, refused to do so Tuesday.
Open board meeting
At a public meeting late Tuesday afternoon, Pat Barnes, an original founding member of the fire district and longtime friend of Paulsell, said, “We have no idea why that happened. I think it is unjustified and unfair."
"There is little we can do for now; we can work to throw the board out at the next election.”
Ray Davis, a former fire district volunteer, said he was unhappy with the circumstances of Paulsell's retirement but thanked the board for its hard work.
He said everyone needed to remember that they “were not in the house that Paulsell built, but that the volunteers built.”
The board did not respond to any of the public comments at the meeting.