Council hastily adjourns after chiefs protest firing
Florence city council members couldn’t adjourn Monday’s meeting fast enough after listening to three county fire chiefs speak about the March 7 firing of Florence fire chief Mark Slater.
Although they initially intended to adjourn without a public comment session, mayor Bob Gayle did ask whether anyone had any public comments “other than fire.”
Despite adjourning, the mayor and council members Reilly Reid and Jeanie Meirowsky lingered in the meeting room, talking to acting fire chief Terry Britton. Under state law, that discussion may have constituted an illegal meeting.
At least 24 firefighters and fire chiefs turned out to support Slater. Two of them — Goessel fire chief Matt Voth and Lincolnville fire chief Les Kaiser — were on the agenda to speak on Slater’s behalf.
Slater spoke to council members first. He reminded Reid of having worked together on the department — starting when Reid was chief.
He reminded Meirowsky of working with her when she was with emergency medical services.
He alluded to a personal issue on the part of council member Matt Williams.
“Matt, like I have said before, if you have a personal vendetta, you leave it outside the door,” Slater said. “Don’t bring it into the meeting.”
Council members sat in silence while Slater spoke.
“I will say Matt was not the only one to blame,” Meirowsky told Slater. “It should have stayed in the fire department in the first place.”
Mary Shipman, the sole vote against Slater’s firing March 7, said she thought other council members had become carried away.
“Thank you for your opinion,” Williams said. “Next up!”
“Are you in charge now? I didn’t know that,” Shipman answered.
Shipman made a motion to give Slater his job back. The motion died for lack of a second.
Both Voth and Kaiser delivered passionate remarks.
“Mark has been an integral part of the fire service for the county and his district,” Voth said. “I have worked with and alongside of him for years, and he has been a very key asset in not only building up this small department here in Florence, but in helping with the large fires within the county.”
Speaking of Slater’s training and skill at resource management, Voth urged council members to compare Florence’s fire department with departments in towns of similar populations.
“I would testify to his high level of personal integrity and I would fight fire in hell alongside him any day,” Voth said.
Voth said he found it worrisome to see a photo of Florence’s assistant chief fighting a fire without his bunker gear.
“You also have a very high chance of defaulting on your emergency medical service contract with the county and losing the status of a primary rescue department in the county, and with the possibility of losing a piece of equipment with it,” Voth said.
Listening with a stern look on her face, Meirowsky asked Voth when he was finished speaking, “Do you guys have a standard operating procedure?”
Council members believe Slater did not follow protocol when disciplining a firefighter for alleged misconduct at the scene of a Nov. 20 fire.
Voth answered that his department had a standard operating guideline.
Kaiser said he had known Slater many years and thought highly of him.
“In the newspaper, mayor Gayle stated that the governing body of the city of Florence’s primary responsibility is to protect the city of Florence, its citizens, and members of the fire department,” Kaiser said. “I find this hard to believe, as they placed an officer in charge of the department who in the same edition of the paper that this comment was is pictured at a structure fire actively fighting fire without any personal protective equipment.”
Another firefighter at that fire was without personal protective equipment, Kaiser said.
“This doesn’t sound like the safety of the citizen or the fire department personnel,” Kaiser said.
Meirowsky looked stern throughout Kaiser’s speech, then asked him the same question: “Do you have an SOP?”
“A first offense is never a firing offense,” Kaiser said.
Shipman said Meirowsky had personal feelings against Slater.
“I move we adjourn,” Reid said.
“Second,” Williams said.
“Third,” Meirowsky said.
The day after Slater was fired, Gayle issued a statement:
“On Nov. 20, 2021, the fire department responded to a call of a permitted fire. As a consequence of that call a complaint was filed with the city of Florence.
“The city performed an investigation of the complaint and how the complaint was handled.
“Following the investigation, the governing body of Florence took action to remove the fire chief without cause.
“The governing body of the city of Florence’s primary responsibility is to protect the city of Florence, its citizens and members of the fire department. Unfortunately, difficult and painful decisions have to be made.”