Spirit of cooperation urgently needed in Mehlville fire district, reader contends

To the editor:

If this title seems somewhat familiar, it should. It actually is a twist taken from a letter to the editor written by Mr. Tom Diehl that was published Jan. 25.

Mr. Diehl’s letter struck a cord with me as I firmly believe “cooperation in governance” is the secret ingredient of successful organizations and promotes their ability to make positive changes. It was for this reason I decided that I would submit my name for nomination to the Mehlville Fire Protection District board.

Over the last two years I have read the Call with astonishment and even bewilderment at the constant turmoil and public mudslinging that occurs on a regular basis between the MFPD board and the district employees. Current MFPD board Chairman Aaron Hilmer and Treasurer Bonnie Stegman are regularly quoted in the Call as to their accomplishments enacting reform. However, oftentimes these statements are either patting themselves on the back for the great job they are doing or seizing the moment to spread misinformation or distort the truth while running down the union local that represents their employees.

It appears Mr. Hilmer is allowed to “spin” his comments to support his position even if his spin is full of misinformation. I am disappointed that when these situations occur that the Call doesn’t take it upon itself to do more research and report a better balance of the issue(s). Here are a few of examples of the “spin” that are actually a distortion of the truth that have occurred recently:

• Mr. Hilmer’s assertion that the voters in south county were subjected to 94 ballot measures in the last 20 years. This was explained as a distortion by Tom Diehl.

• Proposition Tax Decrease — The tax basis can go up or down by a vote of the MFPD board as long as they stay within the limits set by the public vote. Additionally, the savings reported was overstated since the majority of the rollback has never been assessed as tax in the first place. By calling this measure a tax decrease it is meant to serve only one purpose — publicity.

Mr. Hilmer has repeatedly discussed that the actions the board has taken over the last two years has resulted in substantial savings while increasing the service level to the district. For this to be proven, we need more than his opinion. We would need to see facts and statistics.

• Mr. Hilmer was recently quoted in the Call that he’s astonished by the salary and benefit costs the district incurred in 2006.

Additionally, he goes on to say: “This reflects what Bonnie and I inherited from the former firefighter-controlled board.” These comments imply that the MFPD firefighters are grossly overpaid.

Again, I could care less about Mr. Hilmer’s opinion. Show me the facts. Show me where the district salaries rank in line with the other districts in the state and the comparisons need to be “apples to apples.” So show me the breakdown in years of service and training received. It is too easy just to take potshots looking at just the numbers without any reference points. The real meaning is in comparing the numbers against other districts. One other thing, what purpose does it serve for Mr. Hilmer to continually talk about the previous board and the firefighters in such an adversarial manner?

These are just a few of the instances of the distortions of the facts that routinely take place. I can only assume they are meant to influence public opinion. My desire in running for the MFPD board was to attempt to bring some balance to the current situation. I am not “against” the current board nor am I “for” the firefighters union but I do want to see fair and accurate disclosure of the facts so informed decisions can be reached.

It seems each issue of the Call has Mr. Hilmer making some inflammatory remarks about the firefighters. Since he is the board chairman and ultimately the firefighters’ boss, I believe these comments are very damaging to employee morale and create a difficult work environment. I can not see how these actions improve the service levels of the district. In fact, I am concerned that if the firefighters and paramedics are distracted by these issues and are continually being run down by the current board the stage is set for serious accident or fatality.

Shortly after I submitted my name for nomination to the board, my employer received an anonymous letter stating that I was recruited to run for the MFPD board by the Mehlville firefighters union. This is not true. The letter went on to state that the current firefighters union has a history of intimidation, harassment and disregard for the community. The letter requested my employer have me remove my name from the ballot. I ask you, wasn’t this cowardly act of sending an anonymous letter in itself intimidation and harassment? My employer did encourage me to remove my name from the ballot. Not because of the letter, but because the letter itself demonstrates that the state of affairs within the district is so out of control and the relationship is so adversarial it would require too much of my time to try to bring cooperation between the MFPD Board and the district employees and their union.

I have wondered who had anything to gain by my removing my name from the ballot. The anonymous letter was sent to my employer even before my name was re-ported as running for the seat by the Call.

I can only assume the letter was sent by someone who supports the current MFPD board and is afraid of a divergence of thought or even an insightful discussion of the issues. Bonnie Stegman recently wrote a letter to the editor endorsing Ed Ryan for the open seat on the MFPD board. I think this would be a huge mistake. Mr. Ryan is openly endorsed by Ms. Stegman and Mr. Hilmer.

If elected, I fear that he would most likely side with them on each issue and the public would be denied an honest debate of the issues and decisions will be made based on hype rather than facts. I intend to write in a candidate for the MFPD board seat and encourage each voter to do the same.

Jim Burdiss