Future of Stanislaus Consolidated fire chief is uncertain
Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Chief Rick Weigele has been dismissed after only five months with the fire protection district.
That information comes from Weigele himself. Stanislaus Consolidated’s board members have not disclosed what action they have taken against the chief or the reasons for the action.
Questions are swirling, such as: was the Brown Act violated at Wednesday’s special meeting, where Weigele’s performance was evaluated; and can the district keep a fire chief for any length of time? Weigele will be the third chief to leave Stanislaus Consolidated in two years.
Following a 30-minute closed session Wednesday, Stanislaus Consolidated Board President Susan Zanker said the board had taken no reportable action. State laws require public agencies to report decisions made in closed-door sessions.
Weigele said that right after Wednesday’s 1:30 p.m. meeting in Riverbank, the attorney for Stanislaus Consolidated called him into a one-on-one meeting.
The attorney said he had until Friday to resign with severance or be terminated, according to Weigele. The chief said he was told his last day of employment is Nov. 25.
Wednesday night, Weigele said, he received a letter from the district board saying he was immediately placed on administrative leave. “I was ordered to turn in my vehicle and turn in my equipment,” Weigele said.
District Legal Counsel Christopher Diaz released a statement on the behalf of the board Thursday, which refers to an email Weigele sent to supporters at 5:04 a.m. Thursday. Diaz said many of the claims in Weigele’s email are “inaccurate.”
The district’s statement said the board “is confident that our constituents understand there is usually very little the board can or should say publicly about personnel issues. With that in mind, we can say the board has taken great pains to comply with all applicable public meeting laws, personnel laws and contract provisions.”
Dozens of people attended the public portion of Wednesday’s meeting to support Weigele, a 26-year fire service veteran who worked for agencies in Arizona and the Redding area before joining Stanislaus Consolidated at a salary of $160,000 a year.
Those speaking in support of Weigele included Riverbank Mayor Richard O’Brien, Riverbank Councilman Cal Campbell, Oakdale City Manager Bryan Whitemyer, Modesto Fire Chief Alan Ernst and officials from other agencies that work with Stanislaus Consolidated.
On Thursday, O’Brien expressed outrage with the action taken against Weigele. “He is a well-respected individual throughout the county and gained a good reputation in just four months,” O’Brien said. “It is going to be difficult to replace him.”
O’Brien said local officials and residents who spoke at Wednesday’s meeting and a special meeting last Friday had glowing comments about the chief and nothing negative to say.
Whitemyer, Oakdale’s city manager, suggested at Wednesday’s meeting that the district bring in a consultant to help work out the differences between the board and Weigele. Whitemyer wrote in a message Thursday to Oakdale’s mayor and council: “I couldn’t be more disappointed with the situation.”
Weigele was hired to replace former Consolidated Chief Matt Daly, who held the job for eight months before resigning in March and moving back to Illinois. A previous chief, Randall Bradley, held the position for a year and a half.
District board member Dave Woods has said the two previous chiefs left to take other jobs.
Some are charging the district board violated the Brown Act by announcing no action was taken at Wednesday’s closed session.
Under the state’s meeting law, public agencies are allowed to discuss personnel matters behind closed doors, and there are rules for reporting decisions made in closed session.
According to legal experts, the board has a right not to disclose information to the public if the chief has “administrative remedies” or rights to appeal the disciplinary action. The governing body can withhold the report until the employee has exhausted his rights.
Tom Newton, executive director of the California Newspaper Publishers Association, said the district board’s reporting requirements depend on whether the chief has administrative remedies.
Weigele is an “at will” employee under a three-year employment agreement with Stanislaus Consolidated signed in May. He can be terminated without cause under the contract, but Weigele said he believes the Firefighters Bill of Rights gives him one meeting for appealing the disciplinary action.
The board, in its statement Thursday, said it complied with the Brown Act’s reporting requirements when Zanker said there was no “reportable” action. “Sometimes reports happen immediately; sometimes they are to be delayed because various other steps must occur before it is legally appropriate to report out,” the board’s statement read.
Amid the uproar over the chief’s dismissal, people have asked county government for intervention, going so far as asking if the special district’s board members could be replaced. The county is responsible for appointing three of the five members; the other two are chosen by Riverbank and Waterford.
County Counsel John Doering stressed that the fire district is an independent entity and its board members are appointed to serve four-year terms.
They serve the duration of the term and can only be removed and replaced for just cause. Legitimate reasons for removing a board member could include no longer living in the district, not attending meetings or abandonment of the post.
County supervisors can appoint someone else when the term expires.
If there were a groundswell of support for major changes in Stanislaus Consolidated’s leadership, district residents could petition the county for a ballot measure creating an elected board. The petition would require signatures from 25 percent of the electorate, Doering said, though making it clear he’s not suggesting any changes.
County Supervisor Terry Withrow said he wasn’t ready to cast judgment on district board members. He said he does not know the facts surrounding the personnel issues with Weigele.
“The board has its own autonomy,” Withrow said. “Maybe they have just had bad luck with the people they have hired.”
Supervisor Kristin Olsen, who represents the Riverbank-Oakdale area, said she has serious concerns about the turnover in the chief’s position. “It has hurt the reputation of the district,” Olsen said. “It will be hard for the district to find someone to serve as chief. It raises questions about who is the board accountable to.”
According to some accounts, Weigele and the board have disagreed over the roles of the fire chief and board in overseeing fire district operations.
O’Brien said he has applied for a vacant seat on the district board that needs to be filled by the county. A state Attorney General opinion has been sought on whether it would pose a legal conflict with O’Brien’s job as Riverbank’s mayor.
Beside the fire chief departures, O’Brien said, the city was frustrated in seeking an estimate from Stanislaus Consolidated on fire service impact fees for Crossroads West, a commercial and residential mixed-use development.
“We tried for almost a year and a half,” O’Brien said. “It was just difficult to get it. We would like to have a responsive board.”
O’Brien said he has floated the idea of Riverbank, Oakdale, Waterford and maybe Ceres forming a joint powers authority for fire service. That would result in dissolving the fire district’s board. The legal questions of the proposal need to be explored, he said.
Ken Carlson: 209-578-2321, @KenCarlson16
About the board
The Stanislaus Consolidate Fire Protection District is governed by an appointed board. Board members include:
President Susan Zanker, county appointee, term expires June 2019.
David Woods, county appointee from Empire, term expires June 2019.
Michelle Guzman, Riverbank appointee, term expires December 2019.
Steve Green, Waterford appointee, term expires December 2019.
Vacant seat, county-appointed, term expires June 2019.