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.

"People should be able to disagree and work out their differences," Brown said. "That was not occurring. It was not positive."

Paulsell and other fire district leaders, including former City Councilman Pat Barnes, fired back, issuing press releases accusing Brown and Piringer of using the media to attack their old boss.

"These lawsuits -- it is retribution by a small group of disgruntled people," Paulsell said of the former workers' complaints. "They're trying to get back at us and have kept us filling out legal forms for two years. They needed to go."

So the chief brought down the hammer.

At his request, the governing board voted to fire Brown and Piringer. Burke and Jerry Jenkins, a former volunteer battalion chief, were relieved of their duties. John Gordon Sr., a relatively new addition to the district's three-person governing board, broke ranks and sided with the recently fired employees and former volunteers.

But the board's mainstays, Willis Smith and Myrtle Rapp, sided with Paulsell.

Then, with assurances to the board and the public that he would clean up the department, the chief announced an in-house reorganization.

"There was a faction causing a great division within the organization, and it got resolved," Paulsell said. "Now, we're moving forward. Morale is better, and our objective, our mission, is better defined today than it was yesterday."

Former employees and volunteers objected to being called a "faction" and claim they were discredited and labeled as a group to silence them.

"We were not a clique, and we were not an isolated group," said Burke, who works as a firearms instructor for Strategos International LLC, a professional military and law enforcement-training firm. "We were a large part of the leadership of the department, and we saw the problems and tried to use the chain of command before we ever went public."

In exchange for agreeing to the in-house reorganization, the board placed one condition on Paulsell: The chief had to improve "district communications," board members said.

But the chief balked when Pamela Franta, a Columbia workplace psychologist brought in to examine the fire district, said the job would cost $25,000.

"There was no great need to have someone come in and ask a few questions and leave," Paulsell said. "We knew what the problems were, and we fixed them in-house."

Beyond the reorganization, little changed. Outdated personnel polices, which hadn't been revised since 1992, were left in place. Curry's off-duty, Halloween-night arrest last year for drunk driving revealed one such hole in the fire district's employee guidelines: The document didn't have a policy saying whether a paid county employee should be disciplined for a criminal arrest.

"Those things will probably be addressed in the revisions," Gordon said. The employee guidelines are currently under review by consultant Robert Scribner, who is also evaluating district salaries.

'Cog in the machine'

In September 2005, a circuit judge ruled against Piringer in his civil case to get his job back. Regardless of why he was fired, the fire district had dismissed Piringer using the right procedures, the judge ruled.

"It was a blow to me and my family," Piringer said. "We didn't think we would see any changes."

Then in January 2006, Willis Smith committed suicide. He had been chairman of the fire district's governing board for 21 years. Paulsell blamed Smith's death on the recall petition effort. Castrop said Smith had experienced a change of heart before his death and had become more receptive to some of what was being said about the district.

Meanwhile, a group of former employees and volunteer firefighters hired Jefferson City attorney David J. Moen. They sought possible lawsuits to get their old jobs back and receive severance and retirement packages that, they said, they hadn't received.

Things didn't look bright.

"Lawsuits are costly and expensive, and we wanted to see some changes," Moen said.