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Monday, December 12, 2011

Monarch Fire Board Fires New Chief in Contentious Meeting

BY PHILLIP O'CONNOR • > 314-340-8321 | Posted: Sunday, December 11, 2011 12:00 am

CHESTERFIELD • A divided Monarch Fire Protection District board on Saturday hired Thomas J. Vineyard as its new chief. Vineyard is now chief of the Mid-County Fire Protection District. His one-year contract at Monarch takes effect Jan. 2 and calls for a salary of $127,500.

The vote came in the middle of a contentious meeting that included calls for two of the three board members, Kim Evans and Steve Swyers, to resign. The board has been in turmoil in recent months, in part over a suit by two female district employees that alleged a hostile work environment. The district recently lost an appeal of a verdict that awarded each of the women $200,000.

Last month, the board voted to dismiss four high-ranking officers over the matter. On Thursday, one of those officers, Fred Goodson, committed suicide, a point of anger for many of those who spoke Saturday morning. Some alleged his death was related to his dismissal, a charge that Evans, the board president, called "ridiculous."

Evans opened the meeting with a prepared statement in which she noted that Goodson's death upset everyone and that "a good deal of misinformation" had circulated about recent events.

She criticized a group of residents that includes former board member Richard Gans for making personal accusations and trying to intimidate the board. The group, Monarch Concerned Taxypayers, issued a release saying Goodson's death "is not lost upon us in light of how he was treated by those on the Monarch Board."

In her statement, Evans lashed back. "We will not engage in political attacks related to the untimely and unfortunate death of a former employee."

Evans said the board took actions necessary to correct violations that a jury had determined existed.

"The board cannot and will not tolerate an abusive working environment," she said.

She blamed Gans and other former board members for not doing anything when workplace problems surfaced years ago. Failure to take action then led to the four men recently losing their jobs, she said.

Gans, who was defeated by Swyers in a re-election bid in April, and about a half dozen others spoke during the often-tense public comment part of the meeting. Several accused Evans and Swyers of being corrupt, union-controlled and wreaking havoc on the district, and called for them to resign. 

Others criticized the recent dismissals of the four officers, saying the dismissals were unfair, badly handled and could result in more litigation for the district. At one point, a speaker told Swyers to wipe a smile from his face.

"This is not a joke," the man said. "You don't need to smile when you're called corrupt because that's what you are."

Later, Swyers addressed the audience of about three dozen and told them he was an honest man with no agenda. As for being a "union puppet," he said, "I don't know what that means, quite candidly. I'm my own man."

He said he has no plans to resign.

At the November meeting where the firings were approved, board member Robin Harris attended by telephone but was not allowed to vote. At Saturday's meeting, Harris said he recently spoke with retired Monarch Fire Marshal Dave Nichols who told him that a firefighter from an adjoining district told him in October that four senior staff were going to be let go.

Harris said that would have been before the conclusion of the court case purported to be the cause of the firings and before he had taken part in any discussions on the subject. Reached at home, Nichols confirmed Harris' account, but declined to comment further.

Harris said: "I want to know how union members knew of final, future board decisions more than one month before the full Monarch board had even addressed the issue?"

At that point, Harris also called for Evans and Swyers to resign to cheers and applause.

Like Swyers, Evans said she has no plans to resign. After the meeting, a visibly shaken Evans briefly sat alone in a break room.

Evans and Swyers voted to hire Vineyard. Harris opposed the hiring, saying Vineyard did not meet the education or experience qualifications set by the board, was not a paramedic and had run a much smaller department that did not respond to water, airborne or confined-space rescues, services that Monarch provides.

"Mr. Vineyard does not even possess the qualifications we require to hire an entry-level paramedic/firefighter, and yet the two of you are suggesting he should become our next chief," Harris said.

The Mid-County district has about 20 employees and serves Greendale, Hanley Hills, Hillsdale, Pagedale, St. Louis County, Vinita Park, Vinita Terrace and Wellston. The Monarch District includes five firehouses, a maintenance facility, training center and headquarters, and employs about 125 people. The district serves Ballwin, Chesterfield, Clarkson Valley, Creve Coeur, Maryland Heights and Wildwood.

Vineyard will receive the same fringe benefits as other full-time district employees, plus a vehicle.

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