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For Fire District board member, three years in the hot seat brought results

Thursday, August 20, 2009 | 12:00 a.m. CDT
Shelly Dometrorch picks out hoops to embroider at her shop, Hoops Unlimited. Dometrorch also has the help of her stepson, daughter and dog, Annie, in the store.

COLUMBIA — As Shelly Dometrorch stood outside the banquet room of the Holiday Inn Select Executive Center in December 2007, she could not help but notice most people veering toward the other doors and greeting other board members. It was custom at the annual volunteer recognition banquet for members of the Boone County Fire Protection District’s board of directors to stand in the doorways and greet volunteer firefighters as they entered the room.

But few would greet Dometrorch, she recalls. After all, many thought the new board member was going to break the foundations of the Fire District. They thought she was going to get rid of then-Chief Steve Paulsell.

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“I would say that her election probably surprised some people who were supportive of the fire chief,” board member John Gordon said. Gordon does not, however, recall Dometrorch being shunned.

Paulsell, the fire chief at the time, had a tight grip on the Fire District. He was one of its founders and served in the district for more than 30 years. Manyrevered him as its white knight, a man whose influence and oversight kept it from falling apart.

In recent years, however, Paulsell became the focus of many controversies, including lawsuits over questionable firings, his connection with a falsified application for FBI bomb squad recertification that ended with the loss of the district’s bomb squad and favoritism toward certain employees, most notably the previous assistant chief, Sharon Curry, who is now his wife.

Dometrorch, 49, denies she joined the board with the intention of getting rid of Paulsell. “I was very prepared to let him show us what he could do,” she said.

Gordon agrees with that.

“She had no ill will towards anybody,” he said. “That was just not true.”

Still, the banquet was just one of many times Dometrorch felt like an outsider. She recalled instances when volunteers and employees of the district would tell her in private that they were afraid of openly speaking to her, for fear of attracting the animosity of the Paulsell administration.

Despite feeling like an outcast, Dometrorch continued to do her job as board member for the Fire District, with her background in public service acting as the cornerstone of her perseverance. Her time on the board of directors has resulted in drastic changes for the district.

Inherited enthusiasm

Dometrorch’s father, John Butler, was an optometrist and member of the National Optometric Association. He was very active in his field and in community service. Dometrorch recalled her childhood home in Hebron, Neb., serving as “eyeglass central” for the nonprofit group Volunteer Optometric Services to Humanity. She recalled thousands of pairs of glasses being sorted at their home before being delivered to poorer areas of the world.

Dometrorch, 49, remembers joining her father on trips to countries where those glasses were distributed, such as the Dominican Republic. She said her enthusiasm for helping others is practically hereditary.

“He was really a neat guy,” Dometrorch said.

Her mother, Marlene Butler, who still lives in Hebron, sees her late husband’s zeal for helping others in her daughter's character.

“She’s hard-working; she’s very conscientious when it comes to public service,” Butler said.

Before joining the board, Dometrorch worked at the Boone County Sheriff’s Department. She began in 1983, handling clerical work when the chief deputy left. She remained with the department for 16 years, where she rose through the ranks of corporal, sergeant and lieutenant. She left the department in 1999 as the assistant commander of the services division and administrative assistant to Ted Boehm, the sheriff at the time.

Gordon knew Dometrorch when he was a reserve sheriff’s deputy. “I think her past career working with the Boone County Sheriff’s Department has given (the board) insight on reaching the right decisions,” he said, adding that her experiencefrom owning a business also helps.

“Public safety will always be my first love,” Dometrorch said. “It’s where my heart is.”

Handling the stress

Dometrorch was elected to the Fire District’s board of directors in April 2006, taking the place of Myrtle Rapp. The former chairman, Willis Smith, committed suicide in January 2006, making Rapp chairman. David Griggs, now board chairman, was appointed to finish Smith’s term. Rapp died earlier this year.

Before Dometrorch and Griggs joined the board, it was criticized for rubber-stamping almost every proposal made by Paulsell.

“They rarely questioned some of the decisions that were made or being made by the administrative staff,” said Gordon, who was elected to the board in 2004 and served with Willis and Rapp.

Voters approved adding two seats to the board in 2006. Those were filled by Phyllis Fugit and John Sam Williamson in 2008. The current board is composed of five members elected by Fire District voters. The board appoints the fire chief.

With the Fire District divided between supporters and critics of Paulsell and the board filled with new faces, Dometrorch thought her straightforward approach for dealing with problems and vocal opposition to Paulsell made some of his supporters nervous.

To add to her stigma, Dometrorch is married to a former assistant chief of the Columbia Fire Department, Brent Dometrorch. Years before she ran for the board, the Fire District and Fire Department feuded over the city and county's territorial agreement, which stated that the district was responsible for responding to areas annexed by the city.

“It kind of drew a line in the sand,” Brent Dometrorch said, noting that even though these arguments were in the past, there was still some hostility.

Dometrorch's husband was also once the president for the Columbia Professional Firefighters Local 1055 union, which she said aroused suspicion that she supported paying the Fire District’s volunteer firefighters, a notion she described as “grasping at straws.”

“There was just no basis to it at all,” Brent Dometrorch said.

Despite the controversy her husband’s previous positions brought, Dometrorch regards him as one of the reasons she has been able to deal with the stress and remain on the board.

“I really respect his opinion,” Dometrorch said. “He kind of thinks the way I do.”

Over the years, Dometrorch has confided in her husband about the difficulties and stress that comes from being a board member for the Fire District. Brent Dometrorch said the reverse was also true and that he was able to confide in his wife whenever he needed to vent.

“Luckily, I have a really great family,” she said, adding that her husband's family was also a vital source of relief from the stress.

Away from the toils of the Fire District, Dometrorch runs Hoops Unlimited, an embroidery business in Rocheport. Two part-time employees help run the business: her 20-year-old daughter, Jenni, and 24-year-old stepson, Dustin. Dometrorch purchased the company from a friend in 1999.

Dometrorch is also a member of the United Methodist Church in Rocheport, as well as the Perche Creek Yacht Club, a social club of over 800 members. Members of the club meet at Les Bourgeois Winery in Rocheport on Wednesday evenings, dubbed “Winery Wednesdays,” to share wine and stories. There is no sailing involved.

Walking a fine line

Despite the strain that a difficult election brought, Dometrorch did not hesitate to get to work. The first major issue she recalls taking on as a board member was the accounting errors that ultimately led to the Fire District’s alleged misuse of more than $500,000 of Federal Emergency Management Agency funding for Task Force One’s deployment to Hurricane Katrina. An independent audit in 2006 revealed that the district took money for the deployment twice: once from the preparedness fund and once from the actual deployment fund.

“I harped on this for three years,” Dometrorch said. “I knew we got paid twice.”

Dometrorch said that as she independently investigated the problem, an employee of FEMA initially gave her enough information to let her know she was on the right track. Then FEMA stopped helping.

Brent Dometrorch recalls the months dealing with the audits as one of his wife's most stressful times. The other was the negotiations over Paulsell’s retirement.

In June 2009, the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security released an audit of the Fire District’s use of FEMA funding from 2002-2006. It recommended that the district pay back $752,453. Dometrorch said the audit was bittersweet vindication.

“I wish I was wrong,” Dometrorch said. She said that though she does not want the Fire District to get into trouble, its problems must be brought to light if they are ever going to be fixed.

But it's difficult at times, she said, to know what's best for the Fire District. “Sometimes I feel like I’m walking a fine line,” she said.

Dometrorch walks that same line with the media. Her voice can be found providing both her opinions and her knowledge in most news stories about the Fire District over the past few years.

Dometrorch said that among employees and volunteers in the Fire District, there is a fear of talking to the media, but the shroud of secrecy needed to be lifted.

“I think the press should be used more like a partner than treated like the enemy,” she said.

In 2007, Dometrorch continued her investigations into the Fire District’s problems by leading a salary review board tasked with studying the salaries of the Fire District’s paid employees. The committee was composed of people with public safety and human resources backgrounds. She said committees are useful tools for her because she likes diverse points of view.

“When I have a decision to make, I want to hear all opinions,” Dometrorch said.

Bob Scribner, a paid personnel consultant for the district, analyzed each staff position and gave it a salary bracket recommendation for minimum and maximum salaries. Dometrorch said the results surprised her: Only two salaries exceeded the bracket recommendations, the most glaring being Paulsell’s $177,058, an excess of about $25,000, according to previous Missourian reporting.

Dometrorch said she was vocal to the board about her desire for Paulsell to step down as fire chief in previous years, while other board members were hesitant. Her wish came to fruition last November when Paulsell retired. She also opposed the board’s decision to give Paulsell a $300,000 severance as part of his settlement. The district still owes him about $150,000.

Before the settlement while the debate was reaching its climax, Dometrorch received angry phone calls from Paulsell's supporters. There were no threats, but callers were very passionate about keeping Paulsell in the Fire District, she said.

Change for the future

This year is proving to be the start of a new era in the Fire District, and Dometrorch said it is finally on the right track. The search for a new chief, the development of new bylaws and the improvement of accounting practices all serve to make the district more transparent.

One of the biggest changes is the replacement of the old territorial agreement between the district and the Columbia Fire Department with the new fire service agreement that went into effect earlier this year, which has sparked a new level of unity between the two agencies, as both will now respond together to calls in certain areas. This agreement will also result in a reduction of funding the district receives from the city, from $672,756 in 2008 to an annual $350,000.

“I really feel like I have been in a fight for three solid years to get where we are now,” Dometrorch said.

Dometrorch is leading the board’s search for a new fire chief with fellow board member Fugit. The Fire District should have a new chief selected by next month.

“I really think that (the district) has improved tremendously,” Dometrorch said. Her term on the board of directors expires in 2012, and she has not decided if she will run again.


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