Fire chief decision pleases very few

LaCROFT – As promised two weeks ago, Liverpool Township trustees made a selection regarding a new fire chief Monday. Their choice, however, set the stage for heated exchanges that nearly led to the arrest of one volunteer firefighter and left an atmosphere of animosity in its wake.

With a deadline of Jan. 1 to select a new chief looming, trustees announced that both Clifford Utt and Dave Ward would serve as acting co-chiefs of the Liverpool Township Fire Department, with Utt heading up the LaCroft station and Ward managing the Dixonville station. A final decision on a single fire chief will be made within six months.

“It’s a trial period is what it is,” said Trustee Keith Burke, who was appointed to serve as liaison between the two stations. He said trustees believe both Utt and Ward are highly qualified for the job, but feel this trial period will allow them to make a more informed choice.

“We’ve heard good and bad about both candidates,” Trustee Steve Betteridge said.

“We’re trying to make an honest decision on the best person,” Burke added. “We just want them to show us that they can do the job.”

Former chief Mike Bahen was elected township trustee in November, prompting him to resign his post. Bahen argued the eight weeks trustees were given, from the time of his resignation as fire chief in November through Jan. 1, should have been ample time to settle on a favorite choice.

The announcement was met with vocal resistance from the firefighters in attendance, including Utt and Ward, who believe the measure is designed to put them into competition with each other.

“They’re setting [the fire department] back 17 years,” Bahen said, referring to how the township operated the LaCroft and Dixonville stations independently as two separate fire departments before combining them and appointing him fire chief in 1996. Bahen recalled that the two departments fought among themselves before they were merged, with disagreements over training, command at the scenes of various fires and other running conflicts. He fears this will happen again now that Utt and Ward are in competition for the chief’s job.

Trustees admitted it is a competition, but believe Utt and Ward will collaborate rather than work apart. Since they were unable to make a decision between the two finalists for the post, they say the six-month period beginning on New Year’s Day will give them an opportunity to observe the two in action. “We just need more time,” Burke said.

Betteridge says the ultimatum placed on them by Bahen and the firefighters was not realistic given the limited information they have on both candidates. “I know both these guys by name only,” Betteridge said of Utt and Ward, “and they expect me to go to every fire that’s out there, I guess, so I can get to know them better.”

Bahen agreed Betteridge and Burke don’t know the firefighters, but because they’ve never reached out to them or made any attempts to get to know them, a situation he says extends to the road foreman and police officers too. “They don’t know their employees. All they do is attend the meetings,” Bahen said.

At one point, Trustee Bob George threatened to close the two stations and outsource the township’s fire protection to other departments if the firefighters didn’t consent. Bahen countered that would be an “asinine” idea and should be avoided no matter what. “They won’t listen,” Bahen said in disgust after the meeting.

Betteridge later apologized to those who were left in the township hall after the meeting for the proceedings getting out of hand. Following heated exchanges that rose to a shouting match, one young volunteer, who was not identified, was ordered to be taken into custody by Police Chief Jayson Jackson after he violently slammed a door when leaving the meeting hall.

With the split now in effect, none of the firefighters – including Utt and Ward – wanted to talk on record, fearing that it would further fuel the conflict that they can see brewing among the two stations, which they feel have been pitted against each other. All were in agreement that it was a bad idea and voiced their displeasure with the arrangement, however.