Boone County, Mo. Chief Faces Critics Head On

The chief says that his job and the fire district's image are intact despite the seemingly endless controversy swirling around him.


BONNE COUNTY, Mo.-- Fire Chief Steve Paulsell takes off his glasses and rubs his eyes, the lines on his brow furrowing in frustration.

The equally polarizing and charming man who has led Boone County's volunteer fire district for the past 30 years

But the chief is noticeably tired.

The controversy boiled over publicly a year and a half ago at a board meeting when a group of employees and volunteers criticized Paulsell and his girlfriend, Assistant Chief Sharon Curry, for purported management mistakes.

Since then, an FBI investigation, sexual harassment lawsuits, public spats, the suicide of a fire district board member and intense media scrutiny have dogged the department.

"When you build something, you're going to create enemies," Paulsell told the Missourian in a lengthy interview at the fire district's headquarters in December. "And these perceived controversies have allowed people to try to attack us and bring us down. You have to expect that.

"There are people out there who are jealous," he said. "There are people out there who want to be chief of the Boone County Fire Protection District. And they're trying to cause trouble. I know that."

Industry observers and sources close to the department have told the Missourian that Boone County's volunteer fire district is suffering from the strain of its internal struggles and that Paulsell's job is now in jeopardy.

Do county residents care?

"I think people are very supportive of the fire district," Southern District Boone County Commissioner Karen Miller said. "Most people don't think beyond the fact that they're being protected. As long as they're covered, they're happy."

The fire district's service to county residents is "exemplary," Miller said, noting that most of the allegations against the agency are "media-driven."

Still, the public has become curious about the agency's inner workings.

"Over the last two years, with everything that's come out, the citizenry is very interested," said board member Shelly Dometrorch, who was elected in April over a heavily favored Ashland businessman with ties to the fire district. "They have strong opinions about decisions that need to be made."

There's been talk, too, in the wider fire safety world. A December editorial in Fire Chief magazine, which gave Paulsell its first Fire Chief of the Year award in 1996, likened the chief's troubles to those of Minneapolis Fire Chief Bonnie Bleskachek, who was removed and demoted to captain in December amid sexual harassment allegations.

"Two chiefs in two Midwestern cities with two different outcomes -- so far," the editorial concluded.

"A lot of people are just dismayed that he's in this situation," said Janet Wilmoth, editorial director of the Chicago-based magazine and author of the editorial. "They're surprised at some of his decision-making. A lot of chiefs out there that know Paulsell are just dumbfounded."

Perseverance

The chief, wearing his trademark red Boone County Fire Protection polo shirt, Wrangler blue jeans and cowboy boots on a brisk December day, looks out two big bay windows toward the front courtyard of the fire district headquarters at 2201 I-70 Drive NW. A small handheld radio on his belt crackles as he gazes out upon a larger-than-life bronze statue of three firefighters and a dog running to battle a fire.

To Paulsell, the statue is a monument to his firefighters, a testament to the countless lives saved by the department's volunteers.

"This is who we are," Paulsell said proudly. "This is why we exist."

But the 8-foot-tall bronze monument called "Perseverance" could prove to be part of Paulsell's undoing if questions about the money used to pay for it aren't resolved cleanly -- and soon. The FBI is investigating whether fire district leaders misused $190,000 in public money to pay for it.

There are other issues facing the district:

This content continues onto the next page...