How Much Control Does A Fire District Have Over VFDs

Volunteer fire departments in two states are in the news as they battle with their fire district overseers to determine who can control what. In issue in each case is a common question: can a fire district remove a fire chief who has been duly elected by the membership of the volunteer fire company?

In Wyoming, Albany County Fire District No. 1 is battling with the Vedauwoo Volunteer Fire Department, and its duly elected fire chief, Jeff Mitros. The district purportedly terminated Chief Mitros and went so far as to request a temporary restraining order barring him from entering fire department property or using fire department equipment. The district is also seeking financial information and documentation from the chief.

Last July, the chief’s attorney, Mary Elizabeth Galvan, alleged that the district’s actions were illegal: “The failure of the (Fire District 1) board of directors to specify cause for Mr. Mitros’ dismissal, to provide him notice of established grievance procedures to contest his dismissal or to secure the consent of the Vedauwoo Volunteer Fire Department membership for the dismissal underscores the absence of justiciable cause for the dismissal without which the dismissal cannot stand.”

The fire district is now seeking a declaratory judgment in Albany County District Court to affirm its authority. The district is also seeking a court order compelling Chief Mitros to provide certain financial information and documentation. In pleadings filed last summer the district alleged:

“Mitros’ refusal to accept his termination as a member of Fire District 1 prevents the Vedauwoo Volunteer Fire Department from functioning as a Fire Department, thereby exposing Vedauwoo area residents to increased danger from fire. This is especially compelling in view of the extreme wildfire danger that exists as a result of drought conditions and abnormally warm weather experienced by this area.”

More on the Albany County, WY case.

In Illinois, the Gardner Fire Protection District has essentially eliminated the Gardner Volunteer Fire Department in another unfortunate dispute over a seemingly similar issue. The district was upset that Fire Chief Randy Wilkey refused to submit original invoices to pay department bills, and voted to not recognize him as the fire chief despite the fact that he was duly elected by the membership of GVFD.

Commenting on the district’s decision to not recognize him, Chief Wilkey said earlier this year: “It doesn’t mean anything. They are having a hard time digesting they don’t control the Gardner Volunteer Fire Department. …We are a separate, legal entity from the district. I am elected by the firemen and firewomen on the fire department. They have stood by me through all this, and all of them made a commitment if I leave, they leave.”

However, the district has moved decisively to take control of the department by filing suit, appointing a fire chief for the district, and prohibiting GVFD personnel from responding to alarms under threat of arrest if they interfere with operations.

The Grundy County courts have thus far sided with the fire district, granting them possession and control of the apparatus and stations. In October, the fire department announced plans to appeal the ruling. The department’s attorney, Tim Rathbun, summarized the department’s position as follows: “It’s a simple appeal — can a private company spend its own money the way it wants? That’s the simple issue.”

More on the Gardner, IL case

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.

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