Aspen Fire board looking at just 6-month contract for chief
After other long-term deals, board wants Balentine to build better relationships with other public safety agencies
Aspen Fire Chief Rick Balentine has been put on notice by the district board that he needs to improve his relationships with other local public safety agencies by June, when his contract likely will come up for renewal.
The Aspen Fire Protection District Board is putting Balentine on a six-month employment contract rather than an annual one-year or multi-year deal he has had since becoming chief in 2014. He had two consecutive three-year contracts and then a one-year deal, which expired Dec. 31.
He also did not receive a raise, which he has typically received in previous employment contracts. Balentine currently has a $161,832 salary.
Already in the third month of the agreed-upon contract, the board is expected to officially approve it Tuesday. Along with it will be a set of expectations that the board wants Balentine to achieve by June when a performance evaluation is done.
“We have some milestones we want Rick to achieve, which is play well with others basically,” AFPD Board President John Ward said recently.
The rift between Balentine and leaders of public safety agencies — which includes the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office, Roaring Fork Fire Rescue, Aspen Ambulance District and Pitkin County through its airport operations — goes back to at least 2019.
The tensions were made public in a September 2019 Aspen Fire board meeting regarding jurisdiction and command and emergency response to the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport through a memorandum of understanding. It took almost a year for it to be signed by all the public safety agencies as Balentine questioned where Aspen Fire fit into mutual-aid response.
In early 2020, an outside consultant was hired for nearly $39,000 to conduct an assessment of Aspen Fire’s operations and give recommendations on what to improve.
“No one is perfect, I don’t claim to be perfect, and I am doing my utmost to do the best for our fire department and our community,” Balentine said last week. “I think if you look at the changes we made over the last year fairly … there have been a lot more successes than failures.”
He declined to discuss details surrounding his employment contract or what his conversations have been with the board concerning his performance.
With no documentation or backup information, the 2020 assessment report referenced the rift between Aspen Fire and public safety agencies in one paragraph in the 116-page document.
“The environment between AFD and surrounding agencies appeared to be strained and has resulted in limited interagency cooperation,” the report states. “A lack of cooperation can compromise mutual-aid responses, fire ground operations and overall service delivery. (The consulting firm) recommends the development and implementation of a process to improve interagency cooperation throughout Pitkin County.”
AFPD board member David Walbert said that statement raised a red flag and precipitated the six-month employment contract, noting that he likes Balentine and considers him a friend and is proud of what Aspen Fire does.
“It was not good for a while,” Walbert said. “We are doing the best that we can … it’s a tough situation.”
The statement in the report was based on interviews that the consultant, Rich Buchanan of Emergency Services Consulting International Inc., had with several leaders of local public safety agencies and Pitkin County.
However, their grievances — which included their lack of trust or confidence in the chief, as well as their concerns there was an attempt to control Aspen ambulance operations, or the command structure at the airport and other mutual-aid responses and boundary issues — were not included in the report.
“I’m sure there is a considerable amount of information that was redacted from the report,” said Roaring Fork Fire Rescue Chief Scott Thompson, who was one of the agency heads that spoke with Buchanan.
Aspen Ambulance District Director Gabe Muething said he and his peers hoped the information they provided would be included in the report.
“We were very open and honest in that discussion,” he said. “I do feel the report did not bring forward the concerns we voiced to Mr. Buchanan.”
Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo and County Manager Jon Peacock, both of whom also spoke to Buchanan, confirmed their concerns were not included in the report.
Balentine said he is not aware of the report being edited, and he is the one who asked that those agency heads to be part of the process.
“I really wanted their input, and I still want their input. This is not a bubble,” he said. “I think the goal there was to provide something to the board to look at and improve upon. … I think a lot of things in the report we had already started improving upon, and I think we have made improvements since then.”
DiSalvo informed his colleagues who were interviewed by Buchanan that the CEO of the consulting company, ESCI Inc., told him via phone that the report was redacted by the fire department, according to a June 11 email obtained by The Aspen Times through a Colorado Open Records Act request.
The CEO, Sheldon Gilbert, has since retired and Buchanan is no longer with ESCI.
Mutual agreement redone
Balentine maintains that relationships between him and the agencies have improved, and pointed to two emergency aircraft incidents earlier this month at the airport that were handled efficiently, effectively and in the spirit of cooperation.
Peacock agreed the relationship between Aspen Fire and the airport has improved based on this month’s emergency response per the memorandum of understanding signed last summer.
But not all leaders agree the relationship between Balentine and their agencies are improving.
Thompson said he spoke to Balentine in December about COVID-19 vaccines, but there has been no discussion about how Aspen Fire and Roaring Fork Fire Rescue can work together better.
Thompson did confirm he received a call from Balentine last Thursday in which the Aspen Fire chief apologized for hiring two of Thompson’s employees and stated that “he hopes it will fix our relationship.”
“I feel like there is not good executive-level communication or executive-level trust,” Thompson said last week. “I feel Aspen Fire isn’t utilizing Roaring Fork Fire to its benefit.”
One of the issues Thompson pointed to was Balentine canceling an “auto aid” agreement last year. The change no longer allows Roaring Fork Fire Rescue, which encompasses Snowmass Village, to automatically respond to accidents on certain portions of Brush Creek and Owl Creek roads.
“I believe in soft borders, and I just feel it’s a disservice to the public,” Thompson said.
In email communication last August that was provided by Thompson to The Aspen Times, Balentine said the change was to allow paid firefighters the opportunity to respond since they are now stationed full time at the North 40 station near the Aspen airport.
Balentine said last week there is no issue with Roaring Fork Fire Rescue regarding mutual aid on those roads.
“If we need them, we call them. If they need us, they call us,” he said. “There is no auto aid, it’s mutual aid.”
Muething, the head of Aspen Ambulance, said the relationship between his agency and Aspen Fire remains strong on the front-line staffing level but he and Balentine continue to work on theirs.
“We are communicating and working on our challenges with operations and communication,” he said. “All of the public safety agencies are trying to repair our relationship with Aspen Fire. …
“We want the best, quickest response, and the goal is to have the level best for the community and that doesn’t mean boundary lines.”
Balentine said he is confident about the strides he’s made with the Aspen Ambulance District.
“I feel, in fact I know, our relationship right now with Aspen Ambulance is as good if not better since I’ve been here,” he said.
DiSalvo, who sounded the alarm bell about Balentine’s conflicts with the public safety agencies to the fire board in the fall of 2019, said he has not been contacted by Balentine or the AFPD board regarding improving the relationship with the Sheriff’s Office.
Muething also said he has not been contacted by the board and neither has Peacock.
Thompson said he met with board member Michael Buglione last summer shortly after he was elected to the board.
Currently, there are no clear measurements defined by the Aspen Fire board to gauge improvement by Balentine, or for him to meet the milestones that were laid out and agreed upon in September as part of his 2020 contract, one of which was to “improve AFPD relationships with the Public Safety Council.”
Balentine said he is not aware of any measurements in place to show whether he is improving relationships.
“I urge them to talk to other people,” he said. “For the last couple of years I’ve kept my head down, and especially the last year trying to bring on career staff and really trying to pay attention to fire district business and not really worry about what everyone else is doing.”
Many who have worked with or for Balentine describe the experience as “his way or the highway,” which is a term Ward and DiSalvo referenced.
Ward said one gauge will be talking with agency heads in the future.
“He needs to show progress and develop relationships with stakeholders and be more Aspen Fire and less Rick,” Ward said. “I do think Rick could play politics better. … If he can’t change who he is we’ve got to change who we are.”
AFPD board member Stephen Wertheimer, who has been on the board for about six months, said he thinks the situation is not that dire.
“In my time, he’s done everything we have asked him to do as far as improving relationships and what I think are the right things,” he said. “What I have seen is Rick making an effort doing what we asked him to do.”
Wertheimer also said the six-month employment contract is a suggestion for Balentine to show he is willing to reach milestones in his professional career.
Another employment expectation expected to be attached to the six-month contract that expires in June is improving morale within Aspen Fire.
Board members have acknowledged firefighters have approached them about Balentine’s so-called ineffectiveness as a leader, whether it’s micromanagement, indecision, non-communication or other management issues.
The board members also said there are supporters of the chief as well.
Balentine said after interviewing firefighters last week, he thinks that overall people are satisfied, whether it’s volunteer firefighters, paid firefighters or staff.
“The feeling I get across the board is that morale is good for the most part except for some people,” he said. “If one person isn’t happy, that’s one too many, and I do my best to try to make everyone happy. I can’t make everyone happy, but I certainly do strive for it, that’s my goal.”
Several firefighters have spoken to The Aspen Times on the condition of anonymity and said what board members have heard is an accurate representation of Balentine’s lack of leadership skills, which creates division in the department because there is no communication from the top.
“There is a general sense of desperation among us about when he will retire,” said a firefighter. “Rick is a nice guy who is passionate, but for him to not know this, the ability to recognize what others see, shows how significant his ego is.”
With the addition of paid firefighters being brought into a 138-year tradition of being an all-volunteer department last August, as well as the recent departure of deputy chief Parker Lathrop, having the right leadership is key, said AFPD board member Denis Murray.
“We are in a transitional time in our department, and we have concerns,” he said. “We need to get comfortable where we are going.”
Buglione said he has heard from firefighters who support Balentine and those who have issues with the chief, specifically regarding micromanagement.
The board chose a six-month contract rather than a year because the relationships between agencies need immediate attention, Buglione said.
“There are some things that he needs to work on that, if they don’t happen quickly, I think we all thought would be detrimental to the fire department,” he said. “I do think Rick is making an effort.”
Aspen Police Chief Richard Pryor, who is part of the Public Safety Council, said he has never had a strained relationship with Aspen Fire or Balentine.
“We should always be communicating and working on relationships,” he said. “It’s our responsibility as leaders to do that, and we owe that to the community.”
Balentine said he didn’t know how to answer whether he has reached out to agency and department heads to improve relationships.
“All I can say is that I have worked very hard over the last couple of years, and I’ve learned a lot, and I think we have improved relationships with most everybody that maybe felt there was some divide,” he said. “It’s a work in progress that I take very seriously. There are always going to be ups and downs, peaks and valleys from both sides based on what’s going in their organizations as well.”