Fire chief narrowly avoids ax
Preston William’s supporters applauded and his teary wife hugged him hard Monday evening when a motion to terminate him as Marion’s fire chief went down in flames.
The effort to fire Preston tanked during Monday’s city council meeting after council member Susan Gray abstained and tied the vote.
Mayor David Mayfield and councilman Chris Costello voted to fire Williams, councilmen Ruth Herbel and Jerry Kline were opposed.
Gray appeared torn over interpretations of city code and the apparent support for Williams by Marion firefighters.
“I’m not sure I heard you,” Mayfield said to Gray after she stayed silent during a roll call.
“I did say anything because I don’t know what to do,” Gray said.
“You what?” Mayfield said stunned.
Gray repeated that she did not know enough about the situation to cast a vote, which prompted Alex Williams to launch a fiery defense of her husband.
“Do what’s best for your community,” she shouted from the audience. “And that’s my husband.”
“I don’t have enough knowledge to know what’s best for my community,” Gray replied.
“Then get to know your fire chief,” Williams said.
Gray told Williams she was out of order.
Mayfield’s motion was not simply to demote Preston Williams, it was to remove him from the fire department.
“I recommend that we release Preston Williams from association with the fire department,” Mayfield said.
Mayfield said the council had worked to address concerns with Williams’ financial stewardship and enforcement of municipal policy among other issues.
As soon as Mayfield moved to fire Williams, Ruth Herbel voiced her opposition to his dismissal.
Herbel said city code on removal of an appointed officer states that no officer or employee shall be removed for any reason until he or she has been given notice and afforded the opportunity for a hearing.
“I believe that Preston is entitled to a hearing if he wants one, because an accusation is a charge or claim that someone has done something wrong,” Herbel said. “It’s not a fact, but hearsay.”
Herbel said she herself has been presumed guilty by the city council over an accusation that she tried to sell a city-owned building.
“I received a letter on June 22, 2020, when an accusation was leveled against me for trying to sell the building on North Roosevelt,” she said. “The four people involved in this accusation are sitting in this room tonight.
“They found me guilty and convicted me without even asking me any questions or verifying this accusation with the people I was supposedly trying to sell the building to. This resulted in the city attorney sending me a letter before the facts had been verified.”
Mayfield told Herbel that Williams had already been given an opportunity to talk to the council in an executive session two weeks ago.
“I would assume the executive session probably constituted what we brought before him, it was more than one item,” Mayfield said. “We covered basically all of these issues.”
Mayfield said also he didn’t think such a hearing could be held in open meeting.
“That is correct,” city attorney Susan Robson said. “You’re not supposed to. That is something that has to be taken up an executive session.”
Williams, who had been watching the meeting from an overflow room, joined the audience. He sat in a chair in front of the council.
Williams said the last time he and the council talked, he asked what the meeting was about and wasn’t told much.
He gave Mayfield a letter of support signed by 11 of Marion’s 20 volunteer firefighters.
An issue Mayfield said he had with Williams is that he looked into buying a fire truck for Centre on a lease purchase agreement despite being told not to do so.
The department has trucks owned by both the city and the department’s townships.
Williams said he had been researching the purchase of a truck and what interest rates would be, but had not proposed buying it.
“You were told that you can’t go buy a truck, either for the townships or the city, without coming to this council and getting approved,” Mayfield said.
Williams said the fire department hasn’t even gotten close to buying the truck.
Mayfield was clearly angry when his motion to fire Williams failed.
He glared at Herbel and appeared frustrated with Gray’s indecision.
“So are you abstaining or are you just not voting?” he asked.
Gray replied she would abstain.
“OK,” he said letting out an exasperated sigh. “I guess the motion fails then.”
Williams exchanged a fist bump with a supporter after the meeting. He said he’s trying to improve things in the fire department and be active in the community.
“I’m really hopeful this situation will strengthen the brotherhood in the department,” he said afterward.
Last modified March 11, 2021