Turmoil Continues At Fire Department In Mesa Del

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The dust hasn't settled yet from the mudslinging campaign launched in Mesa del Caballo over the Nov. 3 election of that community's fire board.

If the fallout continues, the newly elected fire board may have to contract out for fire protection for the residents of the community and its neighbors, Freedom Acres and Wonder Valley.

Residents of the subdivision located off Houston Mesa Road three miles northeast of Payson have lost their fire chief, Larry Sutter, who resigned Dec. 31.

Sutter said he doesn't believe the new fire board, comprised of two of three board members, is operating as it should.

"There're a lot of things going on around here," Sutter said, "a lot of politics."

Sutter criticized the two board members, Bill Dawes, a former Mesa del Caballo fire chief who was fired by the previous board, and Joi Nelson, for not yet appointing a third board member.

Dawes said the board held a public meeting Saturday and formed a committee to appoint a third board member. At the meeting, the two-member board appointed Frank Hansen, a previous member of the Mesa del Volunteer Fire Department, as acting chief. Hansen replaced acting chief Brandon Rackley, who reportedly left the community.

Sutter, who had gone back to the department as an engineer following his resignation as chief, then resigned from the department altogether. On Sunday, two other Mesa del firefighters announced that they were taking a leave of absence from the department.

Word spread that the entire Mesa del Fire Department had walked off the job. The new acting chief said he is trying to dispel the rumors.

"This is absolutely not true," Hansen said. "The Mesa del Caballo Fire Department, backed by the Payson Fire Department, is responding to all emergency calls as normal."

Sutter said it was people and personalities rather than issues that forced him to resign.

Dawes agrees that personalities, not issues, lie at the heart of Mesa del's problems. "This community is notorious for having problems with the fire department," he said, "almost since its inception 20 years ago."

Sutter said that there was nothing wrong with the department. "This group came in and started rocking the boat," he said. "I'm not saying we need to get rid of the board -- I am saying we need to get down to business."

Sutter supported the opponents of Dawes and Nelson in the November election. Dawes said the bittnerness from the campaign lingers and continues to cause problems for the fire board and the volunteer fire department.

Sutter said recruitment has been sparse and that the department has only gotten one volunteer over the winter. "This time of year we pick up four or five members," he said.

Dawes said after his appointment, Hansen recruited three new fire department volunteers. This brings the number of volunteer firefighters to six.

"But it looks more and more like a no-win situation, no matter which way we go," Dawes said. "Personally, it hurts that we can't get beyond these hurdles. We won't be without fire protection -- Payson will respond. When you have a walkout like this, your options are limited."

Payson Fire Chief John Ross said the Payson Fire Department continues to act as a backup for Mesa del Caballo.

Ross said the two fire departments have a mutual aid agreement in place.

"Operationally, nothing has changed," Ross said. "They're the primary responders and we respond as usual as per our mutual aid agreement."

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