Fire Chief in Wisconsin Relinquishes Job and Some Benefits

Superior Fire Chief Stephen Gotelaere signed a separation agreement with the city Wednesday that calls for him to retire and to forego or pay back any money gained by falsifying mileage documents.

Mayor Dave Ross said the agreement will cost the chief more than $10,000.

The separation agreement outlines the terms of Gotelaere's departure no later than Aug. 31. The agreement was drawn up after allegations surfaced that the fire chief falsified mileage reports and a travel request to attend a nonexistent conference.

"It was stupid on my part," Gotelaere said Wednesday of the false travel request.

He also acknowledged lying on mileage reports to hide the fact that he had moved to Solon Springs, contrary to a city policy that department leaders must live in Superior.

Before the issue was brought to the city's attention, Gotelaere had already rescinded the travel order and repaid $368 the city had issued for travel, food and lodging for the trip, said Mary Lou Andresen, Superior human resources director. She said he also used two days' paid leave to cover the two days he was not at work, May 10 and May 11.

Ross said Wednesday he believes Gotelaere falsified monthly mileage reports for his emergency response vehicle to hide the fact that he lived out of town.

While Gotelaere continues to maintain an apartment in the city, he admitted Wednesday that his mileage reports contained inaccuracies to hide his residency in Solon Springs.

"I did not falsify what is business or personal miles," Gotelaere said. He said he made up destinations for his reports to hide the fact that he was driving back and forth from a second home.

The value of personal miles on the assigned vehicle is calculated as a salary benefit. While Gotelaere pays taxes on the value of personal miles he puts on the assigned vehicle, the value of the miles could enhance his retirement benefits.

"I wasn't trying to build my retirement," Gotelaere said. "I was trying to hide where I was driving to and from to avoid questioning."

Gotelaere said he believed reporting frequent trips to Solon Springs would have raised red flags with city administration.

But Gotelaere is not the only city department leader living outside Superior, despite the city policy.

Ross said after talking to City Council leaders, he made an administrative decision last year not to force Police Chief Floyd Peters move into the city because of the hardship it would place on Peters' family.

While Peters was supposed to move to Superior a year after being appointed police chief, Ross said Peters lives close enough to respond quickly and owns a house in the city.

"We're totally aware of it," Ross said of Peters' residency. "Technically, he's in violation. But he never hid the fact."

"I would have done it for Steve Gotelaere," Ross said. "That was one of my disappointments."

Any chance that Gotelaere's retirement package will benefit from his falsified personal miles was stripped with the separation agreement Gotelaere signed Wednesday. All of his personal mileage for 2004 and 2005 will be adjusted so his retirement benefits won't be enhanced.

Ross estimated the combination of lost vacation time, the adjustment in personal mileage and subsequent retirement penalties will cost Gotelaere more than $10,000.

Gotelaere acknowledged that it was a costly mistake.

"Honesty really is the best policy," Gotelaere said. He said the old adage could have saved him the embarrassment and shame of having a long career tarnished with scandal.

Ross said he believes Gotelaere's leadership of the department will be looked on favorably, in spite of recent events.

"In my experience with the chief, 99.9 percent has been exemplary performance," Ross said. "I hope this 0.1 percent doesn't judge the whole."

Distributed by the Associated Press