Board to discuss issue June 10

By John Colson

Sopris Sun Staff Writer

Carbondale Fire Chief Ron Leach, who has served for decades without an employment contract at the Carbondale & Rural Fire Protection District, recently told the district’s board of directors he wants a contract for his remaining time on the job.

But at a special meeting on June 2, after the fire board ran into opposition over its attempt to take Leach’s request behind closed doors, the discussion was moved to the fire board’s next regular meeting, scheduled for June 10.

The chair of the fire board, Carbondale Police Chief Gene Schilling, told The Sopris Sun in the wake of the June 2 meeting, “Ron withdrew his request for a contract” after a brief executive session.

But, Schilling continued, further discussion will be on the agenda for the June 10 meeting, about the advisability of having a contract in place for the position of chief, which in 2014 carried an annual salary of nearly $115,000.

According to a summary provided by Leach, the department’s budget for 2014 included salaries totaling more than $1.2 million for 18 positions, out of an overall operational budget of $2.5 million.

At least one fire board member feels a contract for the chief may not be a good idea.

“If we were taking one employee and saying ‘we need to have a special contract for you’,” said fire board member Carl Smith about Leach’s proposal, “what will the message be to the other 17?”

Noting that “all employment in the district is at-will,” meaning anyone can be fired at any time for any reason or no reason, Smith questioned the need for contracts at all.

Others on the board, though, seemed on Tuesday to be more receptive toward Leach’s request.

“The wave of the future is that more people have contracts,” declared Schilling, although a check with the Basalt & Rural Fire Protection District revealed that the chief there, Scott Thompson, does not have one, nor does fire chief Gary Pillotson with the Glenwood Springs Fire Department.

But now, according to Leach, he is no longer seeking a contract.

“It’s not about me now,” Leach told The Sopris Sun on Tuesday. “I actually don’t feel a need to have a contract in place. I’ve moved beyond that.”

There was no reason given at Tuesday’s meeting about why Leach wanted to modify his relations with the fire district by seeking a contract.

Leach, who is 65, told The Sopris Sun in a telephone interview, “I think it adds stability to the organization, for the manager to have a contract with the elected officials.”

The issue came up more than a month ago, according to fire board member Mike Kennedy, who relayed that information in response to a question at the meeting about whether it is urgent to get a contract in place when there has not been one for so many years.

“That’s not so urgent,” Kennedy said of the lag time between Leach’s initial request and the scheduling of Tuesday’s special meeting to talk it over.

Most members of the fire board — Schilling, Kennedy, Bob Emerson and Lou Eller — were ready to close the meeting to the public when objections were raised by Smith, this Sopris Sun reporter and two members of a subcommittee working on a master plan for the fire district.

Smith, the most recently elected member of the board, said he felt that the board should talk in open session about whether the fire chief’s job needs a contract.

“I would disagree,” said Schilling about the closed-meeting debate, adding that “it’s a board matter” that need not be discussed in open session.

But one of the subcommittee members, Hank Van Berlo, thought otherwise.

“I think that it would help kind of dispel the distrust and (concerns about) the lack of transparency” that some residents of the fire district feel toward the district, said Van Berlo.

Another member of the subcommittee, Tom Flynn, told the board that to go behind closed doors to talk about Leach’s proposal would be “very poor timing,” given the fire district’s ongoing fiscal problems and the feelings of distrust mentioned by Van Berlo.

Flynn wondered whether Leach envisions a contract that reflects employment descriptions in the departmental handbook, or whether the chief is hoping to tie down a “golden parachute” for when he retires. Flynn mentioned that Leach, himself, has hinted that his retirement could be as soon as a year from now.

Schilling, as he has in past meetings, claimed that while some feel the district’s electorate is unhappy with how the district is being run, he has heard exactly the opposite from his sources, including some that he said have wondered “why has he never had a contract” for his job.

The board went behind closed doors, on a vote of 4-1 with Smith dissenting, to talk with Leach about his proposal. But, but after the executive session ended, Schilling told this reporter that the contract request had been withdrawn.

He declined to divulge anything said by Leach or the board members during the session, but explained that a discussion about a contract for the chief’s job would be held in open session on June 10.

When asked why the discussion had not been held in the open on Tuesday, Schilling retorted, “We had to hear stuff first” from Leach.