Turlock terminates its fire chief, city manager cites ‘incompatible management styles’

Turlock fire station closures

Turlock City Manager Bob Lawton asks Fire Chief Robert Talloni to explain how the station closures would work during a Tuesday, June 11, budget workshop.
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Turlock City Manager Bob Lawton asks Fire Chief Robert Talloni to explain how the station closures would work during a Tuesday, June 11, budget workshop.

Turlock has terminated the employment of Fire Chief Robert Talloni.

The City Council at a special closed session meeting Friday afternoon ratified City Manager Bob Lawton’s decision to end Talloni’s employment Monday. Talloni, 64, has been on paid leave since Thursday. Gary Carlson — the Fire Department’s operations division chief — will serve as interim chief.

“This was a matter of incompatible management styles,” Lawton said in a Friday interview. “There was absolutely no wrongdoing involved. It simply was not working out to be the right fit.”

He declined to provide specifics.

The vote to reaffirm Lawton’s decision was 4-1, with Councilwoman Nicole Larson casting the “no” vote. Following the advice of City Attorney Doug White, she declined to comment because this is a personnel matter.

Lawton has been Turlock’s city manager for about a year. Talloni had been fire chief since December 2015. He came to Turlock from a teaching post at the National Fire Academy in Maryland. Before that, he was fire chief in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and deputy chief in Norwalk, Connecticut.

Talloni did not respond to several requests for comment. His contract calls for him to receive six months in severance pay plus the value of his accumulated sick, vacation and other leave time. Lawton said Talloni will receive $89,610 in severance and $57,469 in accumulated leave time and special pay, for a total of $147,079.

His dismissal comes as Turlock faces tough financial challenges for its roughly $40 million general fund budget — with about 75 percent of it spent on police and fire — and after last year’s brutal mayoral race in which incumbent Gary Soiseth — who was endorsed by the firefighters union — was defeated by Councilwoman Amy Bublak.

The previous council under Soiseth essentially lived beyond its means by approving labor agreements, the hiring of more police officers, firefighters, emergency dispatchers and other spending that has drawn down general fund reserves. Talloni served as interim city manager when much of the spending was approved.

The new council has approved a general fund budget that includes steep cuts in the police and fire departments — including periodic closures of a fire station — as well as to other departments that spend general fund dollars. The 2019-20 budget starts Monday.

Talloni balanced his budget through closing one of the city’s four fire stations one third to one half of the time in the new budget year because he would not have the staffing or enough overtime funding to staff each shift with three firefighters per station plus a battalion chief.

The budget eliminates two vacant firefighter positions, leaving the department with 46 budgeted line firefighter positions, and reduces its overtime budget. The department needs 39 line firefighters to fully staff all four stations.

Lawton questioned Talloni at a recent budget workshop about why he could not keep all four stations open even if that meant one station would be staffed by two firefighters. That would keep response times the same and the two-person fire engine could do what it could at an emergency while waiting for a fully staffed engine to arrive.

Talloni said in an interview after the workshop that was not a safe practice and also could jeopardize the department’s mutual aid agreements with surrounding fire departments because the departments are required to provide similar resources to calls.

Most of the Turlock’s department’s calls are for medical emergencies. The department responds to about 7,000 calls annually, with about 600 to 700 of them fires, and about 4,500 of them medical emergencies.

Carlson said on Monday morning he will meet with his command staff and battalion chiefs to “revisit and discuss the best plan to staff the city with the approved budget that we have.”

“I’ve been here my whole life,” he said. “I want what is best for the city. We will figure out the best way to keep our firefighters safe, to get to calls quickly and serve the residents.”

The Turlock Firefighers Local 2434 in a Facebook post said Talloni always worked with the rank-and-file employees to keep the public safe.

“Central to this fight has been the ongoing plot by bean counters in city hall scheming to reduce the number of firefighters protecting this city and gamble with public safety,” according to the post. “Chief Talloni stood up against these dangerous schemes and continued to fight for your safety and the safety of Turlock Firefighters. Today Chief Talloni paid the price for that fight.”

Lawton said Turlock has “worked hard to balance our fiscal limitations with the needs of our residents. Every department was part of that. City management will work closely with the public safety departments and other departments to find ways to meet needs as they emerge.”

Kevin Valine covers local government, homelessness and general assignment for The Modesto Bee. He is a graduate of San Jose State University and grew up in San Jose.
John Holland covers breaking news and has been with The Modesto Bee since 2000. He has covered agriculture for the Bee and at newspapers in Sonora and Visalia. He was born and raised in San Francisco and has a journalism degree from UC Berkeley.