The Bear Creek Fire Service Area Board reluctantly agreed by consensus to recommend that their longtime fire chief Mark Beals take a 90-day leave of absence. At a special meeting Monday night, they also recommended that Connie Bacon, a 30-year, much respected senior member of the fire department act as his replacement. Only one board member, Jena Peterson voted against the recommendation. Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Mike Navarre had asked that Beals take a leave of absence, and that retired Seward fire chief Dave Squires be his replacement. But Beals had declined. Some on the board, particularly Dan Logan, voiced disagreement with the choice of “Chief Squires,” saying Bacon was well qualified for the role, and that someone from outside the fire department should not be that involved.
The board also discussed tapping one or two other officers from within the department to help Bacon manage the operations side of the department as she will frequently be out of town working on the North Slope, on a three-week rotation.
The special meeting was called following another open meeting earlier this month in which grievances were aired publicly about an ongoing conflict primarily between Beals and BCVFD’s training chief Jim Wiles, who was hired by the mayor. The borough mayor became involved in an intensive investigation of the conflict between the fire department’s leadership and some past administrative assistants who complained after an altercation between the two men was reported to him. Beals and Wiles had both agreed to keep their differences from their volunteers for the good of the department. But the schism was revealed at the last meeting in which serious charges flew in both directions. When asked if the special meeting Monday night should be held in Executive Session, Beals said Navarre had already broken his confidentiality during the last meeting and on other occasions, so there was no point.
The mayor also believed it important that grievances be aired, and no longer kept from the fire department volunteers, some of whom said they felt they had been left in the dark.
Monday night Beals and Navarre engaged in heated debate in front of the staff and board members, who seemed trapped in an unpleasant situation, not of their making. Wiles was not present to defend himself. Nevertheless, Beals charged Wiles was unfit for the job, and was bringing the department down in many specific ways: the administrative assistants weren’t being correctly trained in their job duties, important reports, paperwork, grant applications, scheduling, and other department matters weren’t getting done.
Navarre said Jim Wiles planned to retire in December. But, he insisted that his training chief leaving wouldn’t address the problem. Beals had prompted complaints from at least four administrative assistants, and some had quit because of it, along with fire department volunteers, he said. Navarre said Wiles was just Beals’ latest target, and said he didn’t want to see another one. The chief’s fire department current fiscal year’s budget’s expenses side were too high, Navarre said, and he had to make the spending more realistic. He also said he felt that in retrospect, the $1.4 million bond for the new fire station building was a mistake, and would continue to hurt the department’s future budgets. The mayor was also surprised to learn at Saturday’s Grand Opening that there wasn’t enough funding appropriated to complete the project. He promised to ask the volunteers to weigh in on how the $75,000 remaining should best be spent.
Navarre said he prides himself on his abilities as a problem-solver, but said that this particular conflict was the most troublesome that he’d ever experienced in his three years as mayor, and that he’d received more communications and emails on the subject than any other. He assured the board that some of the stories that he’d heard stories that would shock those present.
Several board members and volunteers at the special meeting defended Beals’ 30 years of dedication to the volunteer fire department, and to helping each of the volunteers to achieve their individual goals.
“Mark has been a dedicated servant of the Seward area for longer than many members have been alive,” said Jeffrey Wolf, Lieutenant and Vice-President of BCVFD, and a five-year volunteer, in a letter to the board. “Members at BCVFD train hard and give their heart and souls to this calling because of the motivational leadership of Mark Beals and others,” he said.
“The only negative comment I have about Mark and Jim is that they continue to argue, quarrel, and bait each other verbally in front of the membership,” he added. “This is out of the ordinary behavior for both individuals. My opinion is that it is frustration stemming from the current organizational structure and divided chain-of-command that our fire department currently has in place.”
The problem is that the chief has to bear the responsibility of operations, paperwork, and other facets of the fire station being in proper order, he said. But after the altercation with Wiles, and subsequent mayor’s reversal in supervisory authority, Beals could no longer supervise the Bear Creek Fire Service Area portion of the department, putting him in the frustrating position of being accountable for processes beyond his control.
Navarre, who is running for re-election, said he isn’t sure whether he’ll still be in office to see the matter through. He now has the tough choice of interviewing Bacon and Squires, and selecting Beals’ temporary replacement, and whether or not to accept the local board’s recommendation. Once that’s done, he promised to include the BCVFD board in seeking a longer-term solution to the thorny issue of who has supervisory authority, and to seek Bear Creek volunteer’s suggestions.
“It’ll get better, it’ll get better,” said Bacon, who has been with the department since she was 16 years old, and is considered a mother figure by many of the volunteers. Following the meeting, she agreed that the conflict has been difficult for the department paid staff and volunteers. Logan also likened it to a family dispute that can sometimes get overheated, but that ultimately is determined by members’ love and respect for one another.
There’s too many years of dedication, training and knowledge represented in the department, including its pool of more than 20 volunteers to have this squabble break up the department, some said.
“This is one of the recommendations I made to the mayor originally,” said Beals, appearing upbeat at the meeting’s outcome, including his own 90-day leave of absence and the board’s recommendation of Bacon to replace him. He emailed SCN a copy of his email to Navarre, dated May 14, affirming his claim.