Conflict on Fire Authority Board Leads Chair to Resign

Jim Herb has been a part of the Lowell Area Fire and Emergency Services Authority Board since its inception in 2009, first as a member and then as its long-time chair. However, after a January training session that was intended to create more unity on the board, Herb decided he’d had enough. He resigned from the board immediately.

“After every meeting, I couldn’t sleep at night,” Herb says. Given some recent medical challenges, he decided that serving on the board had become too stressful and wasn’t worth risking his health.

Strong Personalities Lead to Conflict

Herb recalls that the board ran smoothly at first. “For the first seven years, this authority ran extremely well,” he says. “We never had a no vote in all that time, and the fire department has [always] gotten what they have asked for.”

The smooth workings of the board began to change when former City of Lowell Mayor Jeff Altoft joined and told Herb his goal was to ensure former Fire Chief Frank Martin was fired. Lowell voters would eventually recall Altoft from his position, but Herb says the board has continued to be tumultuous since current Mayor Mike DeVore joined the panel in January 2018.

“DeVore is a bully,” according to Herb. He says that concerns about DeVore’s behavior date back to the mayor’s time as a volunteer firefighter and that he has been known to yell and swear at board meetings.

Fire Authority Board meetings are not recorded, and attempts to reach other board members for their perspective were unsuccessful. However, two individuals who are not on the board but are familiar with its workings told Lowell’s First Look that Herb’s characterization of DeVore’s behavior during meetings is accurate. These individuals did not wish to be named.

DeVore says his demeanor on the board has been passionate and dedicated. He acknowledges that some discussions have gotten out of hand but says that’s why he suggested having Lew Bender, a team-building expert, meet with the board. Herb, on the other hand, believes the session was set up as a critique of him and his position that the board needs input from a consultant before making a decision on whether to hire full-time firefighters.

Work Session Focused on Role of Chair

Bender has previously conducted team-building workshops with the City of Lowell and Lowell Light & Power, and DeVore arranged for him to meet with the Fire Authority Board as well.

“[DeVore] indicated the board is not functioning well,” Bender told Lowell’s First Look when reached by phone. He said he tries not to gather too much information in advance of meeting with a group so he can make up his own mind about its workings.

While the session was scheduled with the intent of helping the board work together, both Bender and Herb said the three hour meeting focused almost exclusively on Herb’s performance as chair and whether it was appropriate to have a consultant study the issue of full-time firefighters.

“Almost from the outset, it felt like an inquisition,” Herb says,

Bender told board members they would first discuss expectations of the chair and then expectations of board members and finally, how each member could improve individually in their role. But the discussion never moved beyond expectations of the chair.

“There was a lack of confidence in the chair,” according to Bender. “That’s pretty serious.”

That lack of confidence didn’t come from within the board though. Bender said it was members of the fire department who have expressed unhappiness with the board leadership. When asked if members of the department attended this meeting or shared their concerns directly with him, Bender said no. He had heard this reported by other people. He also said he was told three people in the department’s command staff were ready to quit over the consultant’s report, but Herb says this was news to him.

Bender weighed in on the consultant’s report, questioning whether it should be completed without the support of the fire department membership. “My view is that the board needs to reach out and talk to staff before they get too far into the weeds,” he said. He didn’t seem disturbed that Herb resigned as a result of his work session and opined that maybe it was time for new leadership on the board.

It is Herb’s belief that Bender was predisposed against him from the start and is off-base when it comes to the consultant report. He asserts the board needs to make an informed decision about how to meet staffing needs, and the only way to do that is with a thorough review and report from someone with expertise in both emergency services and human resources. While he knows some are unhappy with the prospect of having an outside party review the department’s operations, Herb says it is the only way to get a comprehensive recommendation outlining all the board’s options.

Disagreement Regarding Consultant Report

The prospect of having an outside consultant help determine the future of staffing for the Lowell Area Fire Department is troubling for DeVore. He sees it as an overreach of the board’s authority. “The responsibility of the board is simple: oversee the budget, employ and manage the Fire Chief and purchase vehicles,” he says. “The operations, training and staffing needs of the department itself are the Chief’s job.”

Herb says he doesn’t want to micromanage the department, but he doesn’t see how the board can be good stewards of taxpayer dollars without a full review of department operations. He wonders whether switching the department’s training day from Saturday might encourage more volunteer firefighters. It has also been suggested that using part-time firefighters working a regular schedule but without benefits could be another way to cover daytime hours. Apparently, this arrangement can attract firefighters who have taken an early retirement from other departments and don’t need the retirement and health benefits that would be required of a full-time force.

Looking into these options may make sense given current budget constraints, Herb says. He worries that fiscally conservative Vergennes Township might simply withdraw from the authority if they don’t feel there is a compelling reason to fund a full-time force. Meanwhile, after a January 2019 presentation, City Manager Mike Burns expressed doubt that the City of Lowell could afford a full-time force without a dedicated millage or special assessment. As for Lowell Charter Township, residents there voted down an emergency services millage last November.

If a full-time force is required, Herb wants to be sure that local leaders have accurate numbers to use in their budgets. “Ada went full-time a year and a half ago,” he says. “They are having all sorts of problems because they underestimated their costs.”

While the Fire Department has created its own proposal for a full-time force, Herb notes no one involved in its creation has experience with a full-time department. In his opinion, it only makes sense to bring in a consultant who can ensure the department has addressed all the details – from salaries to retirement plans – without running afoul of employment laws.

Fire Chief Ron van Overbeek doesn’t seem to dispute the need for a consultant’s report either but notes his staff has already spent many hours gathering information requested by the board. “The command staff has been asked several times over the past three years to submit statistics and figures pertaining to full-time staffing,” he says. “We felt that going with a consulting firm may have been necessary, but maybe that’s how the process should have started.”

Reflecting on a Decade of Service

As he concludes his time on the Fire Authority Board, Herb says he always worked in the best interests of both the firefighters and the communities they serve.

As a member of the finance board, he helped raise firefighter pay from $12 an hour when he started to an expected $18 an hour this year. He has also looked for ways to save money when appropriate. For instance, when he learned the department needed another tender to transport water, he suggested the sale of an underutilized pumper truck. That netted $50,000 to be used to pay for the new tender.

“The team at Lowell Fire really appreciates everything Jim helped accomplish during his time on the board,” van Overbeek says. “Jim was very passionate about his responsibilities, and it showed at every meeting.”

DeVore says he is happy there will be a change in leadership, but he wishes Herb well. He explains, “I’m grateful for the service he provided o the board for 11 years, but I’m also excited about the future, now more than ever.”

Herb represented Vergennes Township as a citizen member of the board. There is no word on who will be appointed to take his spot. The Fire Authority Board will likely appoint a new chair at its meeting today, Monday, February 10, at 3:30pm. The meeting will be held at the Fire Department building on South Hudson Street in the City of the Lowell.

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