Aspen Public Radio: Candidate for Aspen Fire Board was fired from department last fall |

Aspen Public Radio: Candidate for Aspen Fire Board was fired from department last fall

Halle Zander
Aspen Public Radio

Michael J. Lyons of Aspen, who is running for one of two seats on the Aspen Fire Protection District Board, was terminated in October as a volunteer firefighter by the district’s fire chief.

Lyons, 51, was fired because of an interaction with a law enforcement officer on April 11, 2022, according to a memo read into public record at an Aspen Fire Board meeting by board President John Ward on Nov. 8, 2022.

“Based upon interactions with Pitkin County Sheriff Deputy Anthony Todaro on the morning of April 11, the chief determined that Lyons’ behavior was not consistent with standards of Aspen Fire and the professional interaction with fellow first responding agencies,” Ward said, in reading the memo. “As the fire chief, the decision to terminate Mr. Lyons as an at-will employee is within the chief’s authority and ultimately we’re putting this grievance to bed.”

“Volunteer” firefighters at Aspen Fire are not salaried, but are considered “employees at-will” and are eligible for workers’ compensation, health insurance and retirement benefits.

In an incident report filed on April 12, 2022, Pitkin County Sheriff’s Deputy Anthony Todaro wrote that he responded to “a domestic in progress” at Lyons’ home on Twin Ridge Drive in Aspen on April 10 after receiving reports from a passerby of “loud screaming and yelling coming from that area.”

Todaro said in his report that he and Pitkin County Sheriff’s Deputy Bruce Benjamin eventually “determined there was nothing criminal about what had taken place” and left the residence.

The next day, April 11, Todaro said Lyons called him around 8 a.m. while “in a very frantic and upset condition,” because his two children were not at school in Aspen.

After returning to the Lyons’ home to talk with Lyons, Todaro found him to be “completely inconsolable and reluctant to listen to reason.”

Todaro attempted to reassure Lyons that his children were likely with their mother, which was later confirmed, but that did not assuage Lyons’ concerns.

“Mike continued to yell at me as I was attempting to calm him down, at one point he called 911 while I was standing in front of him, presumably to get another deputy to help him,” Todaro said in his report. “I called for an additional unit to assist me and was joined moments later by Pitkin County Deputy Kent Taylor and Aspen Police Officer Kirk Wheatley.

“Mike yelled at me to get off his property, suggesting for me to take two steps to my left (across the property line boundary marker),” Todaro wrote in his report. “I did so, but was still unsuccessful in establishing positive communication with Mike. After multiple attempts at communicating with him, Deputy Taylor, Officer Wheatley, and I decided we would leave the area.”

Todaro noted in his report that because of his status as a volunteer firefighter, Lyons had a radio with the ability to monitor law enforcement radio traffic.

“We later disabled this radio because we believed Mike was using it to monitor information related to this welfare check,” Todaro wrote.

Aspen Fire Chief Rick Balentine would determine that Lyons’ behavior in the incident on April 11 was grounds for dismissal and decided to terminate him as a volunteer firefighter. The termination was effective on Oct. 3, 2022, according to the Nov. 8 memo from Ward.

According to Aspen Fire, Lyons was employed with the district from 1998 to 2022.

In a text message in response to questions about his termination on Friday, April 21, Lyons said he left active duty with the fire district in December 2021 and was “separated permanently” in Oct. 2022.

In addition to working for Aspen Fire, Lyons has also worked for the Aspen Ambulance District, the Snowmass Wildcat Fire Protection District, and the Roaring Fork Fire Protection District. He also works as a property manager and a photographer.

Lyons has also sought elected office before, running unsuccessfully for the Aspen Valley Hospital Board in 2016 and 2020.

There are five members on the Aspen Fire Board, and a term lasts four years. In addition to Lyons, three other candidates are vying for two open seats on the board. They are Charles Cunniffe, Jill St. John Wagner, and John Ward, the current board chair.

Aspen Fire, which serves as the regional fire department in the upper Roaring Fork Valley, covers 87 square miles of territory in Pitkin County and has over 70 “career” and “volunteer” staff members on its roster.

Ballots for the Aspen Fire board election have been sent out and the last day to return them to the fire station in Aspen is May 2.

Grievance Filed

Mike Lyons filed a grievance after his termination. His firing was upheld.
Mike Lyons/Courtesy Photo

After his termination on Oct. 3, 2022, Lyons addressed the Aspen Fire Board on Oct. 11 during the public comment period. In his remarks, he expressed frustration with leadership at the fire district and told the board repeatedly to “follow the law.”

He pointed to Fire Chief Balentine and said, “This guy, when he does a swearing-in ceremony, asks the members to follow the law and the Constitution, including the most basic tenant of the law, which is innocent until proven guilty, beyond a reasonable doubt by a jury of your peers. That is not the case with him and him and this department, and that is wrong.”

Lyons then gestured toward one of Aspen Fire’s outside attorneys, Richard J. Peterson-Cremer of Karp Neu Hanlon in Glenwood Springs.

“You guys need to follow the law,” Lyons said. “That’s why you have one of these guys sitting here collecting free money. You’re going to earn it. Follow the law. Follow the law. Don’t fire people because you think it’s the right thing to do because they are innocent until proven guilty.”

The next day, Oct. 12, Lyons filed a grievance against Balentine with the Aspen Fire board, requesting a reversal of the fire chief’s decision to terminate him.

According to Aspen Fire’s policies described in its staff member handbook, a two-member committee made up of the board chair and another board member are to investigate such grievances.

Ward, as board chair, and Dave (Wabs) Walbert, the board’s treasurer, reviewed the grievance.

According to the memo that Ward read on Nov. 8, he and Walbert investigated Lyons’ termination by reviewing Todaro’s incident report, provided by Lyons, and other documents, interviewed people involved, and conferred with attorneys Peterson-Cremer and Karl J. Hanlon.

Then Ward and Walbert upheld Balentine’s decision to terminate Lyons.

Both Balentine and Ward declined to comment this past week on Lyons’ termination, saying it was a personnel matter.

Lyons added that multiple volunteer firefighters have been asked to leave Aspen Fire over the last few dozen years and the district has hired more paid staff.

In an interview conducted on Monday, April 17, via Zoom, Lyons said he was running to give back to the community and support the Aspen Fire staff and volunteers, without mentioning his termination.

“There’s a few challenges for the Fire Protection District going forward and, you know, supporting its people and keeping it as a community based organization,” Lyons said. “Some of those challenges are upcoming and/or are currently happening, and I just think it’s important to kind of help bolster the staff and volunteers of the fire protection district.”

As part of the ongoing election, Lyons is campaigning for a board seat on Facebook and has put up fliers around town stressing his firefighting experience.

“I am running and after serving for 23 years as a volunteer firefighter,” Lyons wrote on Facebook. “I would like to continue to serve you on this board. I bring a ground-up perspective along with along with (sic) the view point from homeowners from our parents and community members from when I grew up here in Aspen.”

Halle Zander is an award-winning journalist and the All Things Considered anchor for Aspen Public Radio,