CARLSBAD -- The Eddy County Commission took swift action Tuesday after Monday's walkout of eight of the eleven Eddy County volunteer fire department chiefs during the Eddy County Fire Board and Fire Chiefs Association meeting.
The commission, in a 3-2 vote, ordered the removal of Malaga Fire Chief Raymond Rios from his post and to recover all assets of the department. The fire department was the instigator of the walkout after the department's assistant fire chief Roy Burkham announced his department's personnel were taking a leave of absence.
Voting in favor of the action were Commissioners Jack Volpato, Susan Crockett and Royce Pearson. Commissioners Tony Hernandez and Glenn Collier casting the dissenting votes.
Immediately after the closed session and the commission's announcement, the sheriff's department, county road department representatives, county's fire coordinator Robert Brader and County Emergency Preparedness Coordinator Joel Arnwine arrived to lockdown the firehouse and seize its records and drugs stored in the ambulance.
The three commissioners who voted to shutter the fire department said they consider Burkham's stated leave of absence as a resignation from the department.
When the fire board meeting was called to order Monday night, Burkham read a prepared statement to county officials, who serve on the fire board, announcing his department's leave of absence.
"It is obvious by the presence of Joel Arnwine (county emergency management coordinator and fire director) at this fire board meeting, the county commissioners and county manager have ignored our repeated request to remove Joel from the fire service due to irreconcilable differences between the fire department and him." Burkham said.
"When the county commissioners and county manager come to a suitable conclusion, we will gladly return to our volunteer duties. It is with great consideration by the members and our prayers that no one in the county suffer any adverse reactions from our choice in this matter."
Commissioner Tony Hernandez, who lives in Malaga and is a non-active member of the fire department, said he believes the commission's action was premature.
"We, the leaders of this government have to make every effort to salvage as many firemen and firewomen or order to provide the necessary service for the Malaga community," Hernandez said. "I also differ with fellow commissioners over the resignation issue. A leave of absence does not mean resignation."
He said most of Malaga's fire department volunteers have been with the department since the inception of fire district and he cannot support their removal.
"They and the other fire districts didn't get the attention from the commission that they wanted. They did try to communicate what they want (removal of Arnwine), but that's not going to happen," Hernandez said. "We need to continue a dialogue to get the result everyone can live with. Although I understand the action taken by my fellow commissioners, it's (Malaga) our community, and we need to support each other the best we can."
Commissioner Susan Crockett, who serves on the fire board and was at Monday's meeting, said fire and emergency services in the active Malaga area won't be interrupted.
"Eddy County has many dedicated volunteers that will step up in this time of need for the residents, oilfield activity and commuters in and around Malaga," she said.
Fire Board Meeting
Following Monday's meeting, fire chiefs in telephone interviews told the Current-Argus although they walked out in support of Malaga Fire Department's stance, they and their firefighters will stay at their posts, for now.
"The county is still covered," said Joel Fire Chief Robin Williams.
La Huerta and Otis volunteers fire departments did not join in the walkout. Cottonwood Fire Department was not represented at the meeting because of the fire chief's schedule conflict.
The loss of the Malaga Fire Department will put an extra burden on the Village of Loving Volunteer Fire Department and the county's Otis Volunteer Fire Department. Malaga also had an ambulance staffed with emergency medical technicians that responded to highway and oilfield accident all the way to the New Mexico-Texas state line.
The city of Carlsbad emergency service will be the first responder.
Unclear during the walkout whether the county fire department chiefs walked away from their post or just in support of Malaga's volunteer fire department, Carlsbad Fire Department Chief Rick Lopez, who was at the meeting, said he was prepared to send additional city fire crews to emergency calls.
Asked for his opinion on Malaga's action and the walkout of the meeting, Lopez said "They apparently felt strongly about it. But I have a department to run and I don't want to get into the middle of this."
Williams said in addition to her support for Malaga Fire Department, the second reason she walked out was because of Arnwine's presence at the meeting.
Williams said she has had issues with Arnwine in the past and when she brought them to the county commission and county manager's attention, they were not addressed.
"I'm flat not going to listen to Joel Arnwine anymore," she said, adding, "He has created a hostile environment for the fire departments."
Williams said although her department, which has the largest coverage area of the 11 departments, will continue to provide fire protection to county residents, there may come a time when her department could follow Malaga's lead.
"We really don't want do that. It would leave so many people without fire coverage," she said.
Cottonwood Fire Chief Kevin Hope, who was not at the meeting, said had he been there, he would have also walked out.
"This has turned political and it shouldn't," he said. "The fire chiefs are angry. We have attempted every avenue of communication that we felt would help. Were have had zero response, none. From the commission's perspective, they won't be pushed into something because of a bunch of aggravated people. It would show weakness. Weakness doesn't matter. You are elected to what is right."
He continued: "Quite Frankly, elected officials should be there to do what is best for Eddy County, not to please one individual. I have been in management for 25 years and have had to choke down my own words many times. You take what is around you, what is happening and do the best you can do. When you try to protect a position or person, that's wrong. You should protect the integrity of the position."
He added that when it comes to the point where fire chiefs walk out of a fire board meeting, it should tell the County Commission there is a serious problem in the fire administration.
Otis Fire Department Chief David Looney Monday's action by the departments "has been coming for a while."
"We didn't walk out because we feel that we need to be there for the community. Our volunteer firefighters are community oriented."