Aspen Fire board extends chief’s latest contract through 2021
After lengthy discussion, board changes proposed six-month deal to one year to give Balentine and board time to solidify goals and ways to measure them
After than more than an hour of discussion and reflection on their handling of the past performance guidance, the Aspen Fire Protection District board unanimously voted Tuesday night to extend Fire Chief Rick Balentine’s contract through the end of 2021.
The board was scheduled to vote on a six-month contract, which was already more than two months removed, but when the discussion began Tuesday and included giving Balentine goals that were measurable, the board decided that it was not fair to him to try to have them met by the end of June.
As well, they weren’t quite sure which of the seven goals set forth were measurable and which were aspirational.
Board member Denis Murray was the most critical of himself and the board for not giving Balentine more specific goals and putting him “behind the 8-ball.”
“We need measurable goals and I think that is something this board hasn’t come up with,” Murray said. “I’ve got no documentation to check it off. It all is esoteric, it feels like. I have development goals and measurable goals where I work so one can review that I’ve met the goals. That’s how it works. We have not done that. We failed to do that. Today is March 9, 2021, and we started this conversation probably in October of 2019.”
Instead of the six-month deal brought to the table, board President John Ward moved to extend the contract to the end of the year with an addendum to provide operational goals that can be measured.
“For my two cents, we need to give ourselves more time, and give Rick more time, and to really try and develop a plan as opposed to a fire drill if we end of up going separate ways,” board member Stephen Wertheimer said. “I don’t know why we’re doing six months.”
The board decided to get those goals better defined by its next meeting in April. Balentine currently has a $161,832 salary.
Before that discussion, earlier in the meeting, volunteer firefighter Ryan Warren, who is the president of the group AVFD Inc that represents the firefighters, wanted to let the board know that he has talked to firefighters about recent concerns under Balentine.
There was conversation about bringing back a yearly vote of confidence in the chief, but that did not gain ground among the district board.
Warren said he has met twice with the chief recently and they have scheduled a monthly meeting to discuss issues he is hearing from the member of the AVFD Inc, which Warren described as “the voice of the Aspen firefighters.”
Warren talked with at least eight members in the past few weeks about morale and other concerns.
“I want to make very clear to you all that AVFD has not taken up the issue of whether a vote of confidence should be held,” Warren told the fire district board. “We currently have no plans to conduct one. We’re not out of our infancy stage in terms of the new iteration of AVFD yet, but I want to let you know this is out there. This issue is swirling.
“I am fairly confident, based on what I heard in my discussions, during my sit-downs, that it’s going to come up fairly soon.”
The AVFD’s next meeting is next week, he said. When asked why he was bringing this to the district board now, Warren said he was trying to let them know “that this is out there and is being talked about.”
It is not being brought up by the AVFD officers, Warren said, but rather he is being approached by some members of the group. When asked why he was bringing up a no-confidence vote at the district’s board meeting because somebody brought it up to him, Warren responded: “It’s not somebody, it’s several somebodies. Are you telling me you don’t want to hear about these things?”
Board members want to hear the feedback, they said.
“I’m not offended by this conversation,” Murray said. “To have the president voice concerns … is refreshing. … And hearing what’s going on, good or bad, I’d like to let him finish his report. And I’d like a report every month.”
Wertheimer said what concerns him is that “what we are hearing is the squeaky wheels and not the consensus of the whole group.”
“You’ll see the board is pushing Rick to be more responsive in many, many areas,” Wertheimer said. “So, I think this conversation has a place between your organization and ours, but I’d like it to be continued.”
Warren said they have a strategic planning session coming up and an anonymous survey was sent to all members and included questions about leadership. He suggested if a large number of the firefighters respond, the board should pull the survey responses as a better indication.
One of the seven goals or milestones for Balentine is to improve relationships with other districts, and he said that has started. One board member questioned how that will be gauged. Is it by sending a survey to those other officials? That was left unanswered.
Balentine emphasized during the discussion about relationships and mutual aid on a call that public safety has not been compromised.
“I think it’s important to understand that our public is not at risk. We call and they go. They call and we go,” he said. “There is no concern there about public risk.”
Jacob Andersen, who has more than 20 years experience in firefighting including more than a decade in the Roaring Fork Valley area, has been named deputy chief of operations for the Aspen Fire Protection District, it was announced Tuesday.
Andersen spent nearly 10 years with what is now the Roaring Fork Fire Rescue Authority, and in 2019 was named the battalion chief.
He previously worked for the U.S. Forest Service and then National Park Service, and spent time with the city of Tuscon Fire Department. He started as a volunteer with what was then the Burning Mountains Fire Protection District (covering New Castle and Silt), which was part of a merger and now known as the Colorado River Fire Rescue department.
“Deputy Chief Andersen brings with him a wealth of knowledge due to his extensive fire service background and his long history serving the citizens of the upper Roaring Fork Valley,” AFD Fire Chief Rick Balentine said in the announcement. “We are blessed to have him join our Aspen Fire team.”
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