Traverse City Record-Eagle

August 22, 2013

Tumult over Almira Township fire chief change

BY MATT TROUTMAN mtroutman@record-eagle.com
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — LAKE ANN — Almira Township officials said fire service in the rural Benzie County community won’t suffer despite a wave of resignations from the Almira Township Fire & EMS Department.

The resignations were prompted by a decision to hire a new fire and EMS department chief. The township board on Monday unanimously voted to hire Steve Adams, of Benzonia, as the first full-time chief of the department.

At least three fire and EMS members, including long-serving part-time Chief Jay Morse, left the department after the vote.

Supervisor Mark Roper said the five-member elected board anticipated some department members would not be happy with the decision to bypass Morse. Treasurer Mandy Rineer said she heard “hearsay” that some volunteers would resign from the department.

“No matter who we picked out of the selection, we knew we would have some people leave,” Roper said. “We knew that going in.”

Like many township fire departments, Almira Township has struggled to attract and retain volunteers for its fire and EMS services. Clerk Tammy Clous said the department as of Wednesday now has 16 members after Morse resigned at the Monday meeting. Two other volunteers sent in a resignation and a request for a six-month leave of absence.

Fire department volunteers could not be reached or declined to comment. Morse said he would not comment on the board’s decision or the department’s future.

“I’m not really going to have a comment on the department right now,” he said before hanging up on a reporter.

Adams, who could not be reached for comment, currently serves with the Benzonia Township Fire Department and Benzie County EMS. Roper said Adams was selected out of a 21-candidate pool that was narrowed down to three, including Morse, for the final interview group.

Morse recently defended the department after a former firefighter, Shawn Gatzke, was accused of possessing child pornography and another firefighter was found to be a convicted sex offender who continued to serve for 14 years after his conviction. Newly-elected township officials said Morse did not inform them about the sex offender’s status and pledged to change background check procedures for fire department personnel.

Roper said these situations had no bearing on the board’s decision.

“All three were very good candidates and the board tried to make a decision to hopefully move the fire department forward,” he said. “We did employment checks and background checks. Any one of the three (finalists) would have been a good pick for us.”

Township Trustee Ann Beaujean said all the candidates were capable and well-qualified, but she personally felt Adams was the best for the department in the “long term.”

“Here in Benzie County we have a ton of equipment here (but) we’re struggling to put people in the fire house,” she said. “We need to consider a countywide fire and EMS department. It’s not about one individual person. It’s about what we need to do in the county for fire and EMS services.”

Roper said he’s “confident” the township’s response to fires and emergencies won’t be affected by any of the resignations. He said Inland Township already pledged to help with calls and Almira Township has a three-station contract agreement with surrounding townships for backup.

“I believe that with the station response we have set up right now, that we are OK,” he said. “Obviously we’ll monitor it very closely.”