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.

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.