Turmoil In Forest Lakes Over Fire Board

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Turmoil is plaguing the Forest Lakes Fire District. Three members of its five-person board of directors are targeted for recall, and earlier this month, one of those and the recently hired fire chief resigned.

"They supported me in my attempts to make it a professional, respected department," said the former chief, John Morris, explaining the reasons for the campaign to recall Chairman Elmer Hess and board members Dale Malaney and Ray Beckett.

"I restructured the pay schedule and that (upset the volunteers)," Morris said.

Leroy Williams, who organized the recall in the community 35 miles east of Payson in Coconino County, had a different story.

"They didn't have the best interests of the subdivision," Williams said. "They approved a $2.2 million budget for an area that is less than 1,000 acres. That budget should not be that big. They were asked to cut it and refused, so we started the recall."

Hess attributed his own Oct. 10 resignation to a variety of reasons: resistance to change, sabotage and harassment.

Morris said he wanted the volunteers to do some work around the fire station for a couple of hours when they were on standby and only a few went along with the plan.

"They are nominally compensated $10 a day to be available," Morris said, "I tried to implement duties to maintain status and they didn't like it. Some resigned or just walked off," Morris said.

Morris has been in the fire service since 1976. He came to Forest Lakes as chief in April, leaving the Wellton Fire Department, near Yuma. The system he tried to implement in Forest Lakes was "used very effectively for nine years in Wellton. It's cost effective and provides the best care for the people of the community and the department," Morris said.

He said there were problems with the way the emergency supplies in the paramedic unit were maintained; problems with the upkeep on the fire apparatus.

"The department owns a piece of fire apparatus that was manufactured in 1978 ... When you have equipment this old you need to go through it top to bottom, front to back ... Further, this truck no longer meets the safety standards and requirements specified by the National Fire Protection Association.

"I guess these facts do not readily concern certain members of the community, because they don't want to spend money that they presently have in the budget. It seems that they prefer to save this precious money rather than put it toward the life safety of the fire fighting personnel," Morris wrote in an open letter to the public about his resignation.

He said training required by the NFPA has been poorly attended by some of the volunteers and other training the volunteers said they had was undocumented.

"If it's not documented, it didn't happen," Morris said of the training requirements.

Morris also claimed that paperwork, seen in the files, has since disappeared, the computers and fire department e-mail has been tampered with and he has been subjected to harassing phone calls.

"They have never been able to retain a professional fire chief here," Morris said.

"I took the challenge to make a difference, but it didn't work out. I have no ill feelings. I'm leaving with a positive attitude and having learned something," he said. "I've learned to read people a little better. I've learned you have to manage in your style and take care of your people no matter what others say. You have to learn about people for yourself."

He said he met some really good people in Forest Lakes and is leaving concerned about the fire hazard in the community.

The chief is returning to Wellton to work as a manager with the ambulance service there.

Former chairman of the board, Elmer Hess resigned Oct. 18, citing harassment and threats.

Hess said he had received a letter from a resident in the district saying, "I owe you one and if it takes forever I pay my debts ... You are the terrorist with major ego problems for it is you who have destroyed our fire department and it is you who shall pay ..."

"In my over 50 years of public service, I have never read anything as vicious (as the threats)," Hess said. "Never in my life have I seen or heard anything like this. I've never been threatened. It was so vicious I felt compelled to resign."

Hess started with the Phoenix Fire Department in 1951, and served for 30 years as a firefighter and gave six years to the Forest Lakes fire board.

"It's heartbreaking. The people who suffer are the community," Hess said.

He said he believed a recall was the democratic way to remove someone from office and he had every intention of fighting it until receiving the threats.

Board members not on the March 2004 recall ballot are Don Short and George Pemberton. Short had no comment about the recall or resignations. As of press time, Pemberton had not returned phone calls to the Roundup.

Although Hess has resigned, he will still be on the ballot, according to Patty Hansen, elections administrator for Coconino County.

To run for office in the recall, residents must submit nominating papers with at least 11 signatures between Dec. 10 and Jan. 9, Hansen said.

The people who were set to run against the targets of the recall are reconsidering, Williams said.

"Several have come up who are a lot more qualified than the ones we originally selected," Williams said.

The candidates running against the recalled board members will not be in place until after the Nov. 15 board meeting, he said. The names will be released after that.

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