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."
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:
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."
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.
"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.
Andrea Meinhart, the fire district's bookkeeper, stepped into the spotlight. In a grievance e-mailed to news organizations, she alleged that the fire district was being mismanaged. She claimed that when she raised questions about errors or inconsistencies in the district's accounting practices, Paulsell and Curry responded with verbal abuse.
Meinhart was placed on paid administrative leave in June after auditors discovered what they described as "accounting irregularities" in the fire district's fiscal yearbooks. In her grievance, Meinhart said she was just a "cog in the machine."
"I will not resign," she wrote. "If you choose to terminate me prior to fully investigating all of my allegations of misconduct contained in this letter and in the employee grievance, then so be it. As stated in my cover letter accompanying my grievance, I had great fear of what would happen to me. What has occurred is that Paulsell rallied his good ol' boy system and quickly fashioned up complaints which call into question my abilities."
Meinhart resigned on July 17 and has not spoken publicly about what happened. She has since also hired Moen as her attorney.
"When she first filed her complaint, it was a shock to all of us," said fellow complainant Burke. "It wasn't someone we normally had day-to-day contact with. She was a part of the inner circle. Her complaint represented something -- it wasn't just us."
'All muddled up'
Boone County Treasurer Kay Murray, who acted as the fire district's treasurer for 10 years before retiring in October, said Meinhart's troubles with the fire district were her own doing.
"That was the fire district's biggest mistake -- bringing in that little accountant gal who had no clue of accounting procedures," Murray said. "She would schmooze people, saying she had abilities when she didn't know a thing."
Murray blamed the fire district's many accounting problems, including $500,000 in federal disaster money being misappropriated, on Meinhart.
"It took us a long time to get the mess sorted out," Murray said. "She had (the district's funds) all muddled up. There was no segregation, no way of tracing it. It was all small amounts."
Murray admitted the district could have used better administrative oversight to catch possible errors. But she blamed Gordon, the fire district's board chairman, for being too lax with Meinhart.
"Oversight was tried, but one particular board member was particularly difficult," Murray said, alluding to Gordon.
Bolstered by Meinhart's grievance, Moen filed five wrongful termination, or Title VII, claims with the Missouri Human Rights Commission, alleging that in siding with Curry over his subordinates, Paulsell demonstrated gender bias and improperly fired paid employees.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission stepped in and offered to mediate a possible settlement in September. Both sides appeared optimistic.
Privately, Moen said he expected federally mediated talks to fail.
Moen's clients wanted Paulsell's and Curry's dismissals as redress for theirs. That was the deal on the table. So Moen was surprised when board members said they would, in fact, be able to accept or reject the proposal -- meaning that Paulsell's and Curry's firings were not out of the question, Moen said.
"We got there and I asked them if they had the authority to terminate Paulsell and Curry in exchange for some, or all, of our dismissals, and they said they did," Moen said. "I said, 'What?' They said they had such authority, and they would engage in mediation."
Those talks failed, Moen said, because agreement couldn't be reached on reinstatement and compensation packages. Board members indicated that Moen's public comments to the media hurt the negotiations.
Gordon wouldn't discuss what went on at the meetings except to say that the board and former district employees failed to reach a settlement.
But when asked if the board would continue to publicly support Paulsell as chief, Gordon replied: "Everyone serves the fire district at the board's pleasure."
Since settlement talks ended, one of Moen's clients, Piringer, a former assistant chief who joined the fire district in 2003 after 16 years as director of MU's Fire and Rescue Training Institute, has filed a $2 million lawsuit in federal court. He alleges, among other things, that his First Amendment right to free speech was violated and Paulsell showed favoritism toward Curry at the expense of other employees.
Moen also said some of his other six clients are awaiting right-to-sue letters from the EEOC before filing similar federal suits.
"With the FBI investigating them and the financial stuff, these things just keep occurring," Brown said. "It's going to be harder to blame it on people like us when we've been gone for so long."
Better than ever
In spite of the controversies, fire district personnel insist that their primary mission -- responding to structural fires --is being accomplished. They say they're doing a better job than ever.
Blomenkamp, a three-year veteran of the department who also came to Columbia from Castle Rock, Colo., said the department was once so fractured that some volunteers would turn around after heading to a reported fire or medical emergency because they felt uncomfortable working with certain volunteers at a scene.
"It's a re-energized organization now," Blomenkamp said. "Three years ago, it wasn't what it should be. There was a definite split. It was not a comfortable situation. You would go to a fire scene and you could just feel the tension. It was almost like there was a fear of stepping out of bounds."
Fire district leaders say response times have improved as have the district's relationships with other city and county emergency services, such as the Boone Hospital Center Ambulance system.
"That group basically destroyed our relationships with other law enforcement, ambulance services and mutual aid agencies," said Assistant Chief Scott Olsen. "They would send out these mandates, and the other agencies wouldn't work together. They were too dictatorial. Now, those relationships are healing."
In interviews for this article -- most of them arranged by Blomenkamp, the district's media liaison -- volunteers express deep loyalty to Paulsell and some frustration with the district's public image.
"You can feel detached sometimes, with everything that goes on in Columbia," said Greg Rush, a longtime volunteer fire captain with the district's Sturgeon station. "But we get mad. We're loyal to the chief, and we're doing a good job where it counts -- on the ground."
Record recruitment numbers for the fire district back up Rush's statement, especially when volunteer agencies across the nation struggle to recruit enough volunteers. The fire district swore in 28 new volunteers last month, its largest semi-annual recruitment class in recent history.
The district is adept at getting out that kind of news and other positive press -- especially about the high-profile deployments of Task Force I, most recently to New Orleans post-Katrina. Paulsell is media-savvy and a compulsive networker.
The chief has powerful friends who have lauded the fire district and showered the agency with federal grants and commendations. U.S. Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., calls Paulsell a personal ally and campaign finance records show the chief has regularly contributed money to state legislators and politicians, including Republican Gov. Matt Blunt, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Republican Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder.
He's professionally well-connected, too.
He taught classes for the U.S. State Department in Turkey, testified on Capitol Hill before a U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee for federally funding fire programs and is heavily involved with Missouri's emergency response programs. Paulsell is also the chairman of the Missouri Fire Service Alliance, an influential lobbying group in Jefferson City.
"He's a very good lobbyist," Brown said. "He has tremendous resources that he can bring in."
Such powerful friends have been handy, said Castrop, a leader of the now-defunct county group that tried to recall the district's elected board. They have helped the chief expand the department into one of the largest of its kind in the country.
"That's his strength," Castrop said. "He gets along well with our political people. You have to give him credit for that and what he has done for the district."
Pat Barnes, one of the fire district's founders and the agency's highest-ranking volunteer, said Paulsell's critics were a "disgruntled few who used the media to their advantage."
"Paulsell has written his own history," Barnes said. "He has done so many things. He is a man among men."
Barnes, one of the CB radio enthusiasts who helped start the volunteer fire district in 1963, said he counts Paulsell as one of his closest friends.
"I know Steve like no one else knows him," Barnes said. "We've fought fires together, pulled families out of automobiles, seen dead little children. When you go through such terrible stuff, you get to know a guy pretty well. ... It's so easy to throw stones at someone's missteps without looking at 99.9 percent of the accomplishments."
Paulsell, himself, admits he's made mistakes.
He frequently mentions the controversial territorial agreement between the county fire district and the Columbia Fire Department, which created impassioned debate between the agencies because of their reluctance to give up existing service agreements. The agreement, which was adopted in 1997, allows the fire district to maintain its core tax base and avoid overlapping service despite city annexations into the county.
Paulsell also acknowledges that his public fight over a proposed plan in the late-1980s to combine the fire district with the City of Columbia's fire department was one of the biggest stumbles of his career. The public and media reaction to Paulsell's move was mixed.
But Paulsell stands by his most recent controversial decisions.
"I don't regret anything I've done over the past two years," he said.
In 2001, only a month after the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., the fire district unveiled the $200,375 bronze statue "Perseverance." Seed money for the statue came from the fire district's general revenue fund. Roughly $10,000 in donations chipped the amount owed to sculptor Harry Weber to $190,387, which the district carried as a miscellaneous liability on its books for three years.
Fire district leaders said fundraising would pay for much of the statue's debt. Those activities were suspended, they said, in sensitivity to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. A $50,000 certificate of deposit would be used to pay off the debt.
The $190,387 in taxpayer money used for the statue, which had been recorded in fire district audits for years, disappeared from this year's accounting. The statue was written off as an asset instead of a liability, Gordon said.
"The statue was listed as an asset," Gordon said. "How it got there, I don't know."
In response to a Missourian request for information under the state's Open Meetings Law, Sue Miller, an accountant with the Columbia firm of Marberry, Miller & Bales, wrote that the money used for the sculpture had "always been treated as a negative cash item," referring to its designation as a liability for three years.
"For audit purposes the idea of negative cash is not an acceptible (sic) accounting presentation," Miller wrote.
Miller has audited the fire district's books for the last four years. Miller also wrote that the fire district's former bookkeeper, Meinhart, closed out the sculpture fund account on Jan. 13, 2005. The fire district then drew $100,000 in public money to cover the closed account, records obtained by the Missourian show.
"They stopped raising the money after 9/11 because there was a greater need, but I think they should try to start fundraising again," said Murray, the district's former treasurer, who resigned in October. "It's still owed to the fire district's general revenue fund."
The general revenue fund is public money the fire district receives from personal property taxes.
The audit also shows that administrative expenses from last year were $231,000 over final budget projections. Auditors called this an "inadvertent oversight" due to bookkeepers not providing adequate financial information to management.
The end result was the fire district's use of $200,000 in contingency money.
Paulsell told the Missourian that a preliminary investigation into the fire district's purchase of the statue concluded this fall "without any problems found."
But FBI spokesman Jeff Lanza said the agency's investigation into the fire district is open.
And in her grievance, Meinhart contended that she was coached about what to say to the FBI.
"I was the person appointed by Steve Paulsell and Pat Barnes to spend a significant period of time over the span of weeks with the FBI investigator," Meinhart wrote in the grievance dated July 17, 2006. "I was instructed to volunteer no information and to only answer questions. I shared with the fire chief where our possible exposures were but did not point them out to the FBI investigator. I waited for the investigator to ask the 'right' questions. He never did."
Lanza confirmed that federal authorities are investigating the county agency but declined to discuss further details.
It wasn't the agency's first contact with the fire district. Federal officials talked to several district employees about allegations of "double dipping," in which employees were paid by FEMA and the county during federal deployments. At the time, Paulsell and Meinhart told the Missourian that employees were encouraged to take vacation time rather than unpaid leave when they deployed.
Here to stay
Compounding the district's communication problems with the public are inconsistencies in what fire district board members have told the media and the board's frequent use of closed meetings.
For example, Dometrorch and Griggs told the Missourian in the fall that the fire district was reassured by its accountants that no "significant amount" of money was missing.
Two months later, a detailed audit of the department's accounting practices revealed that roughly $6,000 in petty cash couldn't be accounted for. Columbia police are investigating the suspected theft.
Likewise, 30 percent of the fire district's board meetings over the past three years have been closed to the public under the state's Open Meetings Law. That percentage is significantly higher than the number of closed meetings held by the Columbia City Council, Boone Hospital's Board of Trustees and the Columbia Housing Authority.
Still, even critical ex-employees say the fire district's new elected board is more open to criticism than the Smith-Rapp-Gordon board.
"There's goodwill there," said former volunteer Burke. "They're open to discussion."
Gordon, who in the summer of 2005 was the only board member to vote against the dismissals of Burke and Jenkins and the firing of Brown and Piringer, said changes in the public's perception of the scandal-ridden county agency will occur.
"The public deserves the knowledge that money is being well spent," Gordon said. "I believe this board has a real desire to be open with the public."
But proposed reforms could come too late for Paulsell.
A well-known source in the firefighting industry, who requested his name not be used for fear of retribution, said Paulsell's reputation is tarnished beyond repair in many circles.
"Something happened to him," the unnamed source said. "He was the squeaky-clean fire chief. Then he started firing employees. These people worshipped the ground he walked on. They knew him for years.
"Frankly, if things don't change, and change quick, he's gone."
But Paulsell said that he's still committed to Boone County and that he's not going anywhere.
"I've gotten other offers to go elsewhere, but I want to be here," he said. "This is where I belong."
Republished with permission of The Columbia Missourian.