Flap over ousted fire chief has drawn attention to Stanislaus Consolidated

Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Chief Rick Weigele, third from left, talks with supporters during the closed-door session during a special meeting of the Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Protection District board in Riverbank, Calif., on Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2017.
Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Chief Rick Weigele, third from left, talks with supporters during the closed-door session during a special meeting of the Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Protection District board in Riverbank, Calif., on Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2017.

Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Protection District has been thrust into the spotlight by the flap over ousted Fire Chief Rick Weigele.

Except for those who pay close attention, residents may know little about Stanislaus Consolidated, which handles fire and emergency medical services in a 520-square-mile area in eastern Stanislaus County. They may wonder why the fate of its chief is so important.

Along with responding to incidents in unincorporated areas of east Modesto, Stanislaus Consolidated includes Riverbank, Empire, Waterford, Hickman and La Grange, and has a contract to provide fire protection in the city of Oakdale and rural Oakdale.

Its firefighters are there to protect large local industrial sites – E.&J. Gallo Winery, Beard Industrial District and the Riverbank Army Ammunition Plant.

The district has a station in Modesto’s airport neighborhood, from which engines may respond to a nearby house fire inside the city of Modesto, owing to a dropped boundary agreement with Modesto Fire Department. Likewise, Consolidated engines from Riverbank respond to emergencies in northeast Modesto.

The district has nine fire stations, about 80 full-time employees, unionized firefighters and volunteers. Its annual budget is around $16 million.

“They have the greatest potential to become more a regional type of firefighting service,” said county Board of Supervisors Chairman Vito Chiesa. “They are an important organization and the stability at the top has been dismal.”

Weigele was hired in May to replace a fire chief who resigned in March after managing the district for eight months. Another former chief, Randall Bradley, held the position for a year and a half. The fire chiefs were lured to the district by six-figure salaries and the opportunity to manage a professional department.

Weigele said he was given a resign-or-be-terminated choice by the district’s counsel Wednesday afternoon and was later placed on leave until a final employment date, Nov. 25. Dozens of people, from elected city officials to residents, attended special board meetings Wednesday and Oct. 20 to urge the board to keep Weigele and work out any differences.

Board members have offered no explanation for the disciplinary action. They have declined requests for media interviews.

The district’s appointed five-member board has come under fire for apparently forcing out a chief who, in five short months, gained respect from officials and agencies that work with Stanislaus Consolidated.

“We are partners with them on resource-sharing,” said Modesto Fire Chief Alan Ernst, who spoke in support of Weigele at Wednesday’s meeting. “That is why it’s important for the citizens of Modesto to understand what the leadership direction is for our partners.”

About 40 percent of the district’s revenue comes from voter-approved special assessments, which allows Stanislaus Consolidated to do more than smaller rural districts that neighbor its borders.

The district was born in 1995 when four smaller departments combined into one. In the past 22 years, the agency has evolved with growing responsibilities and higher expectations. Three years ago, it agreed to contracts to serve the city of Oakdale and Oakdale’s rural fire district after a proposal for an annexation was dropped.

Its more recent troubles in keeping a fire chief on staff has put the heat on board members, including President Susan Zanker of La Grange, Michelle Guzman of Riverbank, Dave Woods of Empire and Steve Green of Waterford. One seat is vacant.

Chiesa said he recommended appointing Zanker to the board based on her work for La Grange’s improvement organization.

Chiesa said he assumes the board has good reason for disciplining the chief. He hopes it’s not a clash of personalities. If top county officials dismissed staff members over personal disagreements, he noted, county departments would be in chaos.

One suggestion has surfaced that it may be time for an elected board to oversee Stanislaus Consolidated.

Catherine Smith, executive director of the Fire Districts Association of California, said that independent special districts usually have an elected board. She said, however, that Stanislaus Consolidated sounds like it’s a “dependent” special district, with a jurisdiction that overlaps with other entities such as a city or county. As an example, property owners in the city of Riverbank are also in the jurisdiction of Stanislaus Consolidated.

Smith said dependent special districts are usually governed by an appointed board connected with an overlapping local government. But the board members are still autonomous in their decision-making, she said.

“The beauty of special districts is that they are the government that is closest to the people,” Smith said. “Special districts are very capable of being reflective of what the communities they serve need.” Whether a district has an elected or appointed board would be based on what constituents want, she said.

A change to an elected board would require 25 percent of the electorate of Stanislaus Consolidated asking the county to put a ballot measure before voters.

Ken Carlson: 209-578-2321, @KenCarlson16