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Cerro Gordo Fire Department rift leads to mass resignations

Published: Wednesday, May 15, 2013 11:33 a.m. CDT

(MCT) CERRO GORDO — A final look at the firehouse where he served for 29 years was bittersweet Monday night for Randy West, chief of Cerro Gordo’s volunteer Fire Protection District.

West was present, along with many supporters, at a special meeting of the district’s trustees to formally turn over his keys, radio and other materials after being dismissed by the five-person board in a decision announced Thursday. About a dozen of the department’s other volunteers joined him in handing in their own resignations as a protest.

“I was relieved because I did not fulfill the trustees’ wishes of firing the deputy chief, who happens to be my son, Blake,” said West after the meeting. “At the meeting Thursday, they told me they wanted me to remain on as fire chief but they wanted me to remove Blake from the roster due to complaints about too much training. He was under direct order from me to push hard for that training, which is required by the state. They gave me an ultimatum to remove him from the roster or resign, to which I said, ‘I’m not quitting, and if you want rid of me, you can fire me.’ ”

Ultimately, that’s what the district’s trustees chose to do, removing Randy West and Blake West from the roster. At the Monday special meeting, active and honorary members of the department were joined by members of the public to address the situation.

The majority in attendance did not hide their displeasure, with one volunteer claiming the move would signal “the ruination of this department” before turning in his radio. Another said he had been looking forward to receiving his 40-year pin for service, but “it ain’t going to happen now.”

The trustee board, consisting of Max Born, Warren Helm, Sam Brandenburg, Gary Shaffer and President T.J. Shambaugh IV, defended its decision without going into many specifics. By the end of the night, they had named former Bement Fire Chief Steve Rittenhouse as the new interim chief in Cerro Gordo, comparing him to a consultant who will help train the next permanent chief. Rittenhouse will preside over a reduced roster, with Shaffer saying that age restrictions might be loosened to allow honorary members to return to active duty.

Shambaugh, meanwhile, stated that although the trustees had received complaints about training, it wasn’t the ultimate reason for West’s dismissal.

“We want our volunteers to be as well-trained as they can be,” he said. “They need to be safe, know their job and be able to do their job. We’re willing to allow any amount of training to do that. But to do training you have to have people here to train, and we’ve had a lot of people walk away from the department in the past eight to 10 years.”

The losses in membership on the roster came about due to what Shambaugh repeatedly referred to as “differences in philosophy.”

“The trustees, fire chief and deputy chief had different philosophies about treatment of volunteers,” Shambaugh said. “The chief, deputy chief and all officers appointed by the chief are all subject to our examination on an annual basis. We just chose not to reappoint those two. There are several different factors leading up to this that we are not at liberty to discuss because those are closed session-type things. We just had different philosophies about how to treat, care for and retain volunteers.”

For those volunteers who chose to resign Monday, those differences in opinion were certainly transparent. Zack Welton, one of the station’s newest firefighters and EMTs, resigned at the meeting after loudly proclaiming that he would follow West “to hell and back.” He will move to a job in the Hammond Fire Protection District.

“Last Thursday was the first time that any of us volunteers heard anything about this,” he said. “They never brought it to us or asked our opinion. Apparently people complained about the training, but of course, those people didn’t show up tonight.

“I resigned, and I’m pretty sure they just lost whatever roster they have here. As much as I feel for the community, I have to stand up for what I feel is right, and I feel like I’m doing the right thing.”

A career firefighter, Blake West will be moving to the Clinton Fire Department.

Randy West is still reeling from the news but said he looks forward to going on vacation now, his first in 29 years.

His said his main concern is that local fire service in Cerro Gordo will suffer as a result of the departures and said he believes only the resignation of the current trustees would solve the problem.

“It creates a dangerous situation, just like the closure of the volunteer ambulance service,” he said. “The people of our fire district have to band together and demand the resignations of all five trustees. Unfortunately, voter participation was 19 percent at the last election for this district. Those 8 out of 10 people (who didn’t vote) need to step up now.”

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©2013 the Herald & Review (Decatur, Ill.)

Visit the Herald & Review (Decatur, Ill.) at www.herald-review.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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