Tension flares on fire board

Estero chief, chairman trade barbs over issues


Published by news-press.com on September 23, 2005

Estero Fire Rescue's board meetings recently have turned into heated dialogues between the board chairman and the fire chief.

Chairman Richard Schweers spoke guardedly after this month's meeting about his contentious relationship with Fire Chief Dennis Merrifield.

Schweers, a commissioner for eight years, supported Merrifield's hiring in 1998. Things changed about 14 months ago, he said, when he started noticing "red flags."

"This past year, I've decided to air more things publicly than I have in the past," Schweers said.

"I have concerns over his internal decision making and spending in certain areas. Part of it is the board, how we deal with it. ... I don't mean to keep falling on my sword. We do work in a democracy."

Schweers was in the minority opposing expenses such as detailing company take-home vehicles, hiring an emergency planner, giving the chief a raise $6,000 higher than his salary range cap and building an administrative center larger than immediately needed.

However, it is not unusual for various board members to be split on decisions.

"I'm trying to get some things under control," he said. "I'm concerned about debt. I don't want to get further into debt."

The 2005-06 proposed budget scheduled for a final vote on Tuesday, Oct. 4 includes annual debt payments of $862,650. The budget doesn't include enough money to pay for the planned $3.2 million administration facility and $1 million training facility.

Commissioner Barbara Akins said Schweers was absent from the February meeting at which they voted to increase the chief's salary to $106,500 and give him a performance rating of "meets expectations."

"(Schweers) didn't have the opportunity to hear what the other commissioners had to say during the meeting," she said. "That may have led to some of his frustration."

At that meeting, the four commissioners present had trouble reaching consensus.

Commissioners Gayle Sassano and Bob Morris supported a 3 percent increase, while Commissioners Sam Levy and Akins supported 5 percent.

When both motions failed, Levy proposed the 3.7 percent increase that got approved by a vote of 3-1. Morris voted no.

Then in April, Schweers questioned the board's decision to hire an emergency planner and build an administration building when the money isn't in hand.

He also said the board may need to issue a policy on washing district vehicles after seeing invoices for $16 car washes and the detailing of Merrifield's vehicle for $114.95.

Schweers criticized the board for not supporting his request to require the chief to account for his time in a monthly report.

"I defy any of you to tell me how he spends his time," he said.

None of the other board members nor Merrifield responded to Schweers' prepared statement.

Despite all this, Akins said she believes the fire chief and the board members have the same goals.

"We've disagreed on things ... but I do not believe any commissioners sitting on this board do not have the best interest of the community at heart," she said.

Merrifield said he must take his direction from the majority of the district's board.

"Obviously, Commissioner Schweers hasn't gotten his way on a number of issues," he said. "If that causes him to have ill feelings toward me, I'm sorry. But I work for the majority of the five-member board."

Schweers said the Sunshine Law, which requires commissioners to do business only at public meetings, gives Merrifield a leg up in swaying votes behind the scenes.

"He can influence people. I can't do that," Schweers said. "If there's something we disagree on, he has an edge. The only way I can get through to the board is to do it publicly."

Merrifield said his job is to listen to what board members say and try to build consensus.

"Ultimately, they're going to do what they want to do," he said. "The process is they get together, discuss the issues and set forth direction. I have to live with that direction. This is not an issue of me. It's an issue of the board."

Akins said it's a matter of different management philosophies.

"I think anytime you have different personalities, you're going to have different ideas about things," she said. "It's unfortunate."

Schweers said he has talked with Merrifield in the past year about ways to overcome the friction, some of which has not been addressed in public.

"There might be a few more things behind the scenes I prefer not to talk about," Schweers said.

"It's quite complex. We would both love to have our relationship the way it once was. But I really don't see it happening any time soon, if at all."