MINER - The regular Board of Aldermen meeting for Miner was abruptly adjourned Tuesday following a heated discussion on the state of Miner's fire department.
A near-capacity crowd attended the meeting, most of which apparently did so to ask the Board about recent decisions made relating to the fire department.
The discussion opened with a statement from former Board of Alderman member Deloris Smith: "I was part of the Board that made the decision about the fire department."
Smith said when she cast her vote to fire the former fire chief, Benny Thurston, she was under the impression that more firefighters were ready to step in if existing staff quit as a result. Now, however, the department does not have any first responders left. "Some of our citizens are concerned," she said.
"We are taking applications and going through them," said Mayor Mitch Thompson. He said he hasn't seen any applications with first responder certification come in yet.
Thompson confirmed that Randy Baker, who was the fire chief preceding Thurston before he was fired, was hired by the Board of Aldermen during a special meeting April 19 to be the city's new part-time fire chief.
Also during this meeting two existing public works department employees were assigned to take on duties that were formerly included in the full-time fire chief's position. Landon Wessling was selected to take on code enforcement officer duties and Dub Higden will conduct building inspections.
Noting that Baker is presently working in Florida for 10 days, a member of the public asked, "Who do we have taking care of fires?"
Thompson said the city has 12 firefighters right now although he did not name any. "I don't have a list of names in front of me," he said.
The mayor then offered a prepared statement.
"In light of the ongoing rumors and resentments by the former Miner Fire Association members, I feel the record needs to be set straight," he said. "After numerous talks with Benny Thurston about his job performance, he still would not do his job. At no time did he ask for help or say that he could not do the job, he just would not do his job. He was becoming a liability to the city and putting the city in jeopardy of lawsuits because of his failure to do his job.
"Benny was hired full-time to perform three duties, a fact he acknowledged in a September 2003 interview with the Standard Democrat. Because he had to be relieved of some of his duties, the position was no longer a full-time position. He was offered his other duties on a part-time basis. He refused the Board's offer.
"The fire association told the Board, 'If Benny goes, we go.' The Board took this into advisement and seeing as how Benny refused the part-time offer, he was relieved of his duties. Only Benny was asked to leave. The Board said nothing about the firefighters leaving. Someone inside the association must have told the firemen to leave."
Thompson said in his statement the locks were changed but the doors were not locked and referred to a news broadcast "showing fire association members carting off the contents of the fire house.
"We are still in the process of assessing what was taken," Thompson said. "So far we have accounted almost $1,000 of city property that has been taken. These items need to be returned immediately before other actions must be taken."
Several former Miner firefighter said they were indeed locked out even though they were not involved in the dispute. "Benny made his own bed and I guess he'll have to sleep in it," said a former Miner firefighter who identified himself as a 21-year veteran of the department. "You guys did lock me out."
He said that while he had turned in an application and had not been asked to come back, "with the chief you have now, I will not risk my life." Several other former fire association members also said they would not serve under Baker and that is why they never tried to come back after being locked out. "Everybody knew who was coming in," said one member of the public.
Several in the room asked Board members why they hired Baker back if he was previously found unsatisfactory and fired instead of one of the city's qualified firefighters. "Why did we settle for someone who has caused problems in the past?" said one resident. "Why would he even be considered now?" asked another.
Thompson said the firefighters were polled to see who their choice would be for chief.
"The decision's been made," he said. "It's history."
In other Miner news:
* A lease-purchase agreement with Citizens Bank of Newburg for $61,549 for a backhoe was approved by the Board.
Also approved by the Board was a lease-purchase agreement with Citizens Bank of Newburg for a 2004 fire truck costing $122,000.
City Clerk Janet Tuttle confirmed the truck has a 1,000-gallon tank.
* Voters at a special municipal election Aug. 2 will decide if they want to impose a business tax on all telephone and telecommunication services not to exceed 5 percent of gross sales.
"It's a franchise tax," explained Tuttle. "It will go into the general fund."