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.

Columbia police are looking into the disappearance of thousands of dollars in petty cash from the fire district, which members of the fire district's governing board are blaming on former financial director Andrea Meinhart.

Discrepancies in last year's financial audit of the fire district suggest that hundreds of thousands of dollars in funds were misappropriated, some for the apparent purpose of concealing debts.

Sexual harassment lawsuits have been filed in both district and federal courts against the fire district in recent months, and more could be on the way.

Meanwhile, an independent consultant is looking into why several top administrators, including Paulsell, are making substantially more than what fire chiefs at larger career departments make. (See related story)

Paulsell's supporters within the fire district, some of whom call him a visionary, are sticking by him. The agency's 30-year evolution from a small department run out of an abandoned chicken coop in 1963 to the third-largest fire department in the state with a multimillion-dollar operating budget is the stuff of legend.

"These people would follow the chief to hell," said Gale Blomenkamp, a division chief with the fire district. "They believe in him."

Paulsell's critics, meanwhile, say he's an egomaniac with a bad temper.

"He's just not a team player," said Bruce Piringer, a former assistant chief in charge of training. "Paulsell likes to be the quarterback, but the problem is, he's an insular guy."

Paulsell insists that the fire district is running better than ever. He said that what some see as arrogance is simply his intolerance of the pettiness and backstabbing that defined the fire district in 2005 after several administrators publicly questioned the department's inner workings and his personal relationship with Curry.

"I have to expect the best possible effort," he said of his decision to fire his chief of staff, an assistant chief and two battalion heads. "When football coaches do it, they're heroic."

Family feud

The curtain rose on the fire district family's dysfunction at a board meeting in July 2005 when volunteer Battalion Chief Todd Burke and former firefighter Deb Diller criticized the chief for his relationship with Curry, saying Paulsell was on a "witch hunt" to fire anybody who spoke out against him.

They painted a dire picture of a department in which Paulsell verbally abused employees he considered disloyal and Curry acted as his enforcer.

"If you ever questioned something that seemed a little off or asked for justification, you were snapped at and yelled at," Burke said.

For Rob Brown, the chief's former right-hand man and a personal friend, returning to Boone County to work for the fire district in 2002 was supposed to be a homecoming of sorts. He had worked for the fire district for eight years in the 1980s before leaving to become the fire chief of the Castle Rock, Colo., Fire and Rescue Department.

He said he counted Paulsell and Curry among his best and most cherished friends.

"Steve Paulsell got me through college. He walked my mom down the aisle after my father died," Brown said. "He was next to me at my mother's funeral. There's nobody on the face of the Earth that I would go to before him. That's why I still don't understand what happened. These were the things he taught me not to do. He taught me more about ethics than anyone. That's what makes this so hard."

Brown said the chief eliminated his position after he brought up a complaint that had been filed by a subordinate about a hostile work environment. "Once Steve thought you were disloyal, you were out. You see, when it's a family, it's no longer business, it's emotional," Brown said. "But you can't run good government like a family."

After the fire district's internal troubles boiled over, Glenda Castrop, the wife of a former firefighter, started a petition drive to recall the fire district's elected board which, critics said, was powerless to stop the district from falling into chaos. Seperately, Piringer and Brown quickly spearheaded a public war of words with the chief.