Wednesday, April 26, 2006

'I was just pushed out'

Schwab speaks out about resignation

Express Staff Writer

Greg Schwab says politics is at the heart of his sudden departure as chief of the Ketchum Fire Department.

Last week, the Ketchum City Council authorized a $100,000 payment to Schwab, placing him on unpaid administrative leave with full benefits until Oct. 20, 2006.

The council's resolution says Schwab's was a "voluntary resignation," but Schwab categorizes it differently.

"There was no cause. I was just pushed out," he said in a phone interview Tuesday, April 25. "I wasn't allowed to do my job."

He declined to talk about the $100,000 payment, but he said he was not privy to conversations among council members and city staff.

"They went into executive session," he said. "They didn't fill me in."

Council President Baird Gourlay served as acting mayor in place of Mayor Randy Hall during the private discussions because of Hall's position as a volunteer firefighter.

"I recused myself from the whole thing," Hall said. "I didn't participate in any discussion because of my relationship (with Schwab)."

Schwab, in response to that contention, said Hall's dual positions with the city created problems.

"There is a conflict of interest," Schwab said. "It's a daily problem. It undermines the authority of the fire chief to make key decisions. It was a hostile situation."

Schwab added: "At the end of the day, (Hall's) been mayor for four months and I'm out of a job."

He saved some blame for the media, saying it didn't do sufficient investigative work during confrontations between Hall, once the council president, and former Mayor Ed Simon, which resulted in a series of lawsuits.

"You guys have been asleep at the wheel," Schwab said.

Schwab was hired by the city as assistant fire chief in February 2001. He was named fire chief in August 2002. He relocated from Ohio to take the job.

"It's very difficult to move your family to a different state," he said. "We're a very community-minded family."

Among accomplishments he cited were helping increase departmental staffing levels, improving service and response time to residents, enhancing relations with other agencies and strengthening the fire code.

"That points directly toward my leadership," he said. "I'm very proud of my record here ... I'm very proud of the Fire Department."

Schwab said he was "very disappointed" in the outcome, but is now conducting a nationwide search for another fire chief position.

In the coming days, city officials will determine how much money the Fire Department can save by being frugal.

With a few cuts here and there, the city will be able to defray some of the costs related to the fire chief's departure.

"We'll look at the Fire Department budget," City Administrator Ron LeBlanc said Monday. "We'll see if maybe there are savings in other areas and see how much they will save by the end of the fiscal year."

What doesn't come out of the Fire Department's budget will come from Ketchum's general fund, which has approximately $1.2 million, LeBlanc said.

Supplemental appropriations happen in mid-summer, when the budget is opened up to pay for unanticipated costs.

The general fund will be tapped for Schwab's payment. Unused money will be rolled over into next year's fund.

Assistant Fire Chief Mike Elle will serve as interim fire chief while the city ponders a replacement.

"We're going to regroup," Hall said. "We're probably not going to make any decisions right away."

The city will take its time, he said, and may not announce a permanent replacement for six months or more.

"Elle has the full support of myself and the council," Hall said. "He's one of the nicest guys we've got and he works very, very hard. He is completely capable of managing that department."

Elle has been out of town and has said only that he will help the department out in the interim, Hall said.

In the meantime, Hall said, fire and emergency response will continue unaffected.

"As far as the (Fire) Department is concerned," Hall said, "we're not going to miss a beat."

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