Chief would have restored public’s trust in fire district

By Bill Milligan

Joe was the kind of man everyone wants to be when they grow up, honest, hard working, good at what he did, fair and open minded. He was unassuming, but a great leader; outgoing, yet humble.

When the former fire chief died last week reporters here were as shocked and saddened as the rest of the community. On behalf of everyone at the Call, I want to extend our deepest sympathy to the Gaterman family.

We didn’t endorse him last month in his successful bid for a seat on Mehl-ville Fire District’s Board of Directors, but it wasn’t because we didn’t believe he would be just what the troubled fire district needs to curb spending, improve morale among employees and regain the public’s trust. Joe was chief when the Mehlville Fire Protection District was the best fire corps in Missouri. Had he been able to serve again, he could have restored the district to that elite status.

I first met Joe at a hazardous material spill nearly 20 years ago. He was in charge of emergency response at the scene and I was a reporter trying to get as close to the action as possible for a front-page, spot-news photo.

A truck had dumped some chemicals at the intersection of two four-lane roadways and Joe was busy managing police and firefighters.

Standing with a group of men in “moon suits,” he noticed me out of the corner of his eye and told me where to go from across two lanes of traffic.

During the 19 years I knew him, Joe Gaterman never ducked a question or made an excuse. There were times when he could tell that the information I was seeking was sensitive, but rather than mislead or give the wrong impression, Joe would explain the situation with the understanding that some things were not for print.

Joe never used that confidence to manipulate press coverage or avoid accountability. As union president or fire chief, we could count on Joe to protect the interests of the people of the Mehlville Fire Protection District.

This newspaper never had to pay for copies of documents when Gater-man was chief. He wanted people to know what was going on in his district. Knowing him, you got the feeling that he regarded that as part of his job.

Joe was proud of his family and proud of the Mehlville Fire Protection District.

Today, the fire district seems closed to anyone outside its immediate family.

Poor management and leadership has placed the district in a position that caused it to go to the voters twice and ask for a tax increase to bail it out. Both measures were defeated by voters. On top of that, the board spends more time in closed meetings than in public meetings.

Joe made it clear he didn’t like those policies during his campaign. Anyone who knew Joe knew that he did what he said, but the other candidates wanted those changes as well. We felt that someone from outside the immediate “Mehlville family” could have done more to change the public’s growing negative perception of the fire district.

Joe Gaterman lost his battle against cancer last week and fell short of those goals.

Mehlville’s Board of Directors now must appoint someone to fill Joe’s seat until the next election. Who it chooses will either perpetuate the perception that the district is being run by self-serving special interests or it can pay tribute to Joe Gaterman’s last wish.

John Mikolay finished second in the polls to Joe Gaterman last month and he wanted the same things for which Joe campaigned.

He cared enough to campaign for the office, that makes him more qualified than anyone who didn’t. Bonnie Stegman also campaigned for the seat. She finished third in the voting and she wanted the same types of reforms Joe Gaterman wanted.

If existing directors don’t appoint one of these two to fill Gaterman’s seat, it might just as well put a big “keep out” sign on the boardroom door. No one else has told the public what they’ll do to curb spending and restore Mehlville to its former prestige among fire districts. That was really the only campaign issue last month.

Anyone who liked Joe Gaterman ought to insist that his goals of curbing spending, improving morale and regaining the public’s trust be achieved.

In other words, everyone should demand either Mikolay or Stegman be appointed to serve Joe’s term.