Brainerd Mayor James Wallin was surprised when he learned of Fire Chief Kevin Mahle's resignation.
So surprised, that in the few minutes after Mahle had given his letter of resignation to city council members May 3, Wallin expressed concern about the state of affairs at the Brainerd Fire Department, saying the "tail was waging the dog" -- a reference to a perceived clash between Mahle and other firefighters within the department.
Denny Bollig, Brainerd firefighter and president of the Brainerd Fire Department Relief Association, said Wallin's comments May 3 were off base.
"I understand his comments were spur of the moment, emotional comments but I also feel it's unfortunate that he had to use that forum, the (Dispatch), to make them," said Bollig. "That's not the case."
A week after making the comment Wallin has backed away from his strong statement, but he still isn't sure Mahle got a fair shake within the department.
"When there are problems it usually takes two to tango, there's always two sides to every story," said Wallin. "I don't know what created this. There's enough problems they have to deal with, let alone internal problems."
Wallin said he would like to see any problems addressed before a new chief is hired.
Brainerd's past fire chiefs: 1957-2004
Ray Shortridge, served from 1957 until 1982, when he retired.
Bob Hannon, served from 1982 until 1987, when he retired.
Kevin McGinty, served from 1987 until 1990 when he moved back to serve in the Twin Cities.
Ron Johnson, served from 1990 until 1998, when he retired.
Kevin Mahle, served 1999 until 2004, when he resigned.
"I think sometimes, for people who have been in the department for years, they don't like change," said Wallin. "You have groups that depend on each other, put their lives in each others hands, and someone from the outside is seen as a threat, like not part of the status quo. Especially when you have strong-minded individuals that have preset notions."
Bollig noted that Wallin, as mayor, sits on the Relief Association Board of Directors but he hasn't attended board meetings. If he had, Bollig said, Wallin might not feel left out of the loop. He also wondered why Wallin hadn't called any firefighters to explain his comments.
In his letter of resignation to City Administrator Dan Vogt, Mahle wrote his concept of fire protection was different from others, and during the past few years his frustration has affected his ability to effectively manage the department. Mahle also faced criticism from city council members about the delayed opening of the northeast Brainerd fire hall.
In an interview Monday, Mahle elaborated on his resignation letter, saying he has three areas of fire protection he wanted the fire department to focus on: education, engineering and code enforcement. Mahle said while the department has for years been strong in education, others within the department didn't feel the way he did about engineering and code enforcement.
"I guess that there was quite a difference in philosophy of where I was hoping to see the department go and where some members of the department wanted it to go," said Mahle, who declined to name those members of the fire department.
Mahle said he spoke with Vogt in late April, and the decision to resign was a mutual agreement.
As far as the possible role of the association or other firefighters in Mahle's decision to resign, Bollig said the decision was Mahle's and Mahle's alone.
"We didn't force the chief out, I believe," said Bollig. "As a matter of fact, I believe the chief was actively pursuing other employment for the past couple of years."
Mahle's last work day will be May 27. In his letter to Vogt, Mahle said he will work many half days to use earned comp hours, and beginning May 28 he will use vacation and floating hours earned, leaving his official last day with the city of Brainerd about July 14. He said he has no future plans and no immediate intent of moving out of the Brainerd area, though he said if he chose to stay in fire protection the options here are limited.
"Our lives are an open book," said Mahle of his family.
Another issue within the department, said Mahle, was a lack of staffing. He said he was going to request for his 2005 budget a fire marshal or a building inspector, jobs currently done by the chief. Mahle said he hopes the city council would continue to pursue one or both of the positions.
Most important, Mahle, Wallin and Bollig each stressed that fire protection in the Brainerd area will not suffer from internal issues.
"The citizens need not worry, even if there is this difference between the staff and myself," said Mahle. "I will continue to say this: This group of firefighters is extremely good at their jobs in fire protection. (His resignation) really does boil down to only a difference of opinion."
MATT ERICKSON can be reached at email@example.com or 855-5857.
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