South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

New MFPD board appoints interim chief, replaces legal counsel

In its first night in office, the new Mehlville Fire Protec-tion District Board of Directors shook the district’s foundation, appointing an interim chief and replacing the district’s legal counsel.

The board scheduled even more fireworks for its second meeting, taking aim at health insurance, sick leave, clothing allowances, paid relief for the union president, holiday pay, unscheduled and weekend overtime pay, Mehlville’s substance abuse policy and cross training for new hires, among others.

A request for Comptroller Jeff Geisler to present more cost savings plans also made the agenda for Monday’s meeting, which took place after the Call went to press.

After winning election April 5 on a reform platform, Aaron Hilmer and Bonnie Stegman were ready to roll in their first meeting April 18, while lone incumbent Dan Ottoline was relegated to a back seat, voting against nearly every motion the two new members made.

“Being the one with the most longevity here and with what’s been going on in the district, I think that I should be chairman, but that’s up to you other members of the board,” Ottoline said.

After a brief pause, Stegman nominated Hilmer for board chairman. Hilmer seconded the motion, which was approved with a 2-1 vote.

The board then unanimously selected Stegman as board treasurer and Ottoline as board secretary and quickly appointed an interim chief and new general counsel.

The moves ruffled the feathers of members of Local 1889 of the International Association of Fire Fighters.

“The fact that this board has come in and not even acclimated themselves to understanding the workings or anything about this fire district and they’ve already made two huge moves?” Local 1889 President Chris Francis told the Call. “My whole point is that I would have seen them come in and maybe gone through the motions for a month or so before they’re going to start doing massive, massive changes.”

Former Metro West Fire Protection District Chief Jim Silvernail will serve as interim chief for $100,000 a year, roughly $25,000 less than former Chief Ray Haddock, whose retirement was approved about a week after the election of Hilmer and Stegman.

Silvernail likely will serve two to three years, and Mehl-ville will open a national search for a permanent chief, Hilmer said.

“I think it will be good to bring someone new in here to help us through this transition period,” Hilmer said of his reform slate.

“I’m very strong on policy,” Silvernail told the Call. “I’m very, very strong on rules and regulations that protect both the public and the employees. There are three things I won’t tolerate. I won’t tolerate alcohol. I won’t tolerate drugs and I won’t tolerate sexual activity.”

Hilmer and Stegman promised voters to roll back the recently approved 33-cent tax-rate increase and look to trim Mehlville’s budget. Hilmer said Silvernail was the man to lead the cause, particularly with his experience at Metro West, the second largest district in the county after Mehlville.

On the plan to cut fiscal waste, Silvernail said, “There’s some cost cutting that could be done but until I go in and see the budget, I have to reserve some comment. I’m going to go in Monday (April 25) — Monday’s my first day — and I’m going to go through the budget then. There’s some evaluating that needs to take place since you’re moving into a new era.”

Assistant Chief John Schicke became interim chief on April 18, filling in after the retirement of Haddock. Schicke also filed for retirement six days after Hilmer and Stegman were elected, though both men say the election did not impact their decision. Schicke’s last day is June 3.

“I have nothing against Mr. Silvernail,” said Ottoline, who voted against his appointment. “We are going to pay him while John sits in the chair also?”

“Well John can be assistant chief then, as he was before,” Hilmer said.

“I know Chief Silvernail and I’m sure he’ll do a fine job,” Schicke said. “He’s a fine gentleman … It makes perfect sense.”

Silvernail was Metro West chief for 23 years before retiring suddenly in 2003 amid arguments with a new board. Silvernail and the board did not agree on an appropriate pension plan, so he apparently called one board member one night to reiterate his stance, Silvernail said. Shortly thereafter, Silvernail faced two misdemeanor counts of harassing a Metro West board member.

Silvernail said he plans to plead no contest.

“I lost my temper … I wish I’d never done that, but I felt that with my 40 years of service to the district, I kind of got the shaft … I am going to plead no contest and put it in the past,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Mehlville board also will begin working with a new general counsel.

Matthew Hoffman, general counsel of the Lemay Fire Protection District, will replace John Hessel, who has been with Mehlville more than 20 years. Hoffman will be paid $90 per hour compared to Hessel’s $215 per hour.

“This will be an almost 60 percent savings for the fire district,” Hilmer said. “He’s worked at the adjoining district for over five years. He’s worked them through memorandums of understanding and various changes they’ve been through. I think it would be good to bring someone new in.”

But Hoffman’s nomination scared Ottoline.

“The same gentleman cost Lemay many thousands of dollars, losing to Mehlville, trying to sue Mehlville over a triangle of property with some bad information that cost them thousands of dollars, and you want to hire this person?” Ottoline asked.

“I think it would be prudent,” Hilmer responded.

“To lose money?” Ottoline asked.

“I didn’t say we’d lose money,” Hilmer said. “We’re not looking to sue anyone. We’re looking to bring a new general counsel in.”

“But he gave them bad information, bad advice,” Otto-line interjected.

“Obviously he did what he felt was in the best interest for Lemay Fire Protection District, so I would say that he would bring that kind of demeanor to the Mehlville Fire Protection District,” Stegman said.

“But through bad advice he cost them thousands of dollars,” Ottoline said.

“It’s a subject we’re not well versed in,” Hilmer said.

“Well then why bring that man’s name in here if you’re not well versed?” Ottoline asked.

Hilmer cut off the discussion, making a motion to appoint Hoffman, which passed 2-1.

“It seemed liked they had a set agenda,” Francis said. “And again, most things like that, especially appointing a new general counsel or an interim fire chief, would have been things that would have been discussed in closed session and would have at least been discussed with the other board member before they came out and did something like this.

“So I think that’s the biggest thing is the shock that they’ve made such huge steps within their first meeting,” he added.

The board also approved a motion to solicit bids for an independent performance audit of the district.

“I think this would be good with a new board coming in here that we at least see what the bids would be for an outside firm to come in here, audit the district from the top down and see if there’s anyway we can benefit the taxpayers from it,” Hilmer said.

“Didn’t we just have an audit from the —or, they accepted your audit?” Ottoline asked Geisler.

“The auditors were in here for a financial audit, which I guess they finished their field work about March 21, I want to say, but I think what Mr. Hilmer is recommending is a performance audit, which is a little bit different than a financial audit,” Geisler said. “It’s kind of an efficiency audit on how to be more efficient and yet still be more productive.”

“What is this going to cost?” Ottoline asked.

“That’s why we’re going to roll it out for bid,” Hilmer said.

From now on, the board will meet at 7 p.m., rather than 6 p.m., at the No. 5 engine house, 11020 Mueller Road.

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