The Seward Phoenix Log - News of the Eastern Kenai Peninsula since 1966

By Fern Greenbank
LOG Editor 

Board recommends BCVFD chief take leave


Monday night was a game changer in the close knit Bear Creek community.

At a special called meeting, the Bear Creek Fire Service Board recommended a 90-day leave of absence for Bear Creek Fire Chief Mark Beals. This recommendation follows on the heels of a heated board meeting July 8 to discuss the future of the fire chief and the structure of the fire department in general.

Beals, who has served the department in multiple capacities for more than 30 years, says he was expecting the board to make the recommendation but that didn’t make it any easier to accept.

“I’m fine with stepping down,” said Beals after the meeting. “There are plenty of good people to help with a transition.”

The board specifically recommended to the mayor that former Bear Creek Fire Department administrative assistant Connie Elde be asked to fill the chief position while Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Mike Navarre decides what he wants to do about the structure of the department and its relationship to the borough government.

In an email to Navarre on May 19, Beals told the mayor he didn’t believe taking a leave would “solve the big picture” but Beals did suggest to the mayor that he consider appointing Connie Elde, a former assistant chief with the Bear Creek department, to serve as an interim chief because she has served the department for many years and she is a temporary borough employee. He suggested operations could be handled by Assistant Chief Steve Krouse and other officers.

“That would allow us 90 days to figure out where we go from here,” wrote Beals. “The current setup is frustrating to the employees, volunteers, the board and myself. Above all, we need to support the volunteers as without them, there is no service to the community.”

Navarre did not take Beals’ suggestion to the board at that time.

The board’s decision to recommend the leave of absence and the placement of Connie Elde as interim chief was not a unanimous decision. Board member Jena Petersen voted against the recommendation because, she said, she wanted the recommendation to be separated, asking for the leave and asking for a specific person or persons to fill the position temporarily.

Elde, who works a three week on and three week off job on the North Slope, would need administrative assistance, said Petersen, who recommended someone, perhaps retired Seward Fire Chief David Squires, be asked to assist Elde.

Elde said she was willing to accept a temporary position but she preferred to take advantage of internal knowledge and expertise rather than asking someone outside the department.

Board member Dan Logan, a former assistant chief with the fire department, agreed.

“As long as it is somebody who knows this department,” said Logan. “I suggest we not go outside because there are other agendas on the table that are inappropriate.”

Mayor Navarre made it clear that a “conditional leave of absence” was not what he wanted. Asking Beals to take a leave of absence, said the mayor, was a separate issue from appointing an interim chief. He told the board that regardless of its recommendation, it wouldn’t change the way he decided what action to take.

Because the mayor had already reached out to retired Seward Fire Chief David Squires about possibly stepping in as interim chief, he told the board he felt compelled to speak to Squires before making any decision about appointing Elde or some other person to serve as chief.

“I feel I would have to follow up and let him know we are going in a different direction,” said Navarre.

The Bear Creek Fire Department has experienced a lot of turmoil and tension over the past several years, said several volunteer firefighters Monday night. The internal problems have become public, however, since Mayor Navarre disclosed during a regular board meeting on July 8 that he wanted Beals to take a leave of absence and he wanted the board’s support.

The board scheduled the special meeting Monday night to allow them a chance to go into closed executive session to discuss what it felt was a private personnel matter.

Beals had the legal opportunity to permit the meeting to be held in public and he chose the public route which led to some awkward public commentary.

“It is spiralling down quick,” said one former volunteer speaking during the public comment portion of the meeting. The volunteer said it might be better if “everyone” left and the department started over fresh. He said there is too much conflict of interest within the department with people being related and having ties to other issues.

Other current volunteers took issue with Beals’ management style and effectiveness as a chief. Lisa Bildeaux, currently the volunteer leader, said people are being promoted, including herself, even though they have little experience because they have lost a lot of their more experienced volunteers.

“I wrote a letter to the board two years ago,” said Bildeaux. “I asked for help. When you are new, you don’t always understand what is going on behind the scene.”

Bildeaux said at least nine members have left the department because of management issues related, in part, to Beals. She also said the Moose Pass volunteer fire department is not calling upon the Bear Creek department like it used to.

“That just stabs me in the heart,” said Bildeaux. “They don’t trust us.”

Not present at the meeting but included in much of the heated exchanges was Jim Wiles, the training captain and paid employee.

At the regular board meeting July 8, Mayor Navarre disclosed to the board that an altercation had occurred between Beals and Wiles that he felt was dangerous to ignore. Navarre said Beals filed a written report about the verbal incident and then Navarre started investigating the fire department on his own by talking to former and current volunteers and Beals’ former employers.

According to Navarre, and others commenting Monday night, much of the tension in the department is the result of a personality and communication problem between Wiles and Beals but the difficulties with the department started long before Wiles was hired as the training captain.

“I’m not going to suggest that Jim doesn’t have any problems,” said the mayor. “But, letting Jim go is not fair. We are not going to let him go. It’s off the table.”

Navarre told the board that Wiles has indicated he will retire in December and at that time, the issue of hiring a replacement or changing the department structure would occur.

“Jim just happens to be the latest target,” said Navarre. “Nobody else is going to be thrown under the bus by Mark.”

Although several public comments referred to equal blame between Beals and Wiles, firing Wiles was not suggested.

Beals was given an opportunity to defend himself against the mayor’s allegations. He cited a long list of examples of budget and personnel issues that have caused problems for him as the chief.

Beals referred often to the mixed directives he is given by the borough and the confusion about supervisory authority. Beals, as a volunteer fire chief, is in a position of authority over a paid borough administrative assistant. The board has expressed its concern about the lack of authority they hold over department matters and the lack of clarity about the mayor’s policy on administrative structure.

Board member Dan Logan said the board used to have actual responsibilities but, sometime around 1993, the borough took back their authority. But the mayor took issue with this interpretation Monday night just as he did at the July 8 meeting.

“The authority has always rested with the mayor,’ he said. “I give deference to the elected boards.”

But Logan was adamant.

“No, authority was taken away,” said Logan. “Now, we have no authority and someone like you comes in and doesn’t understand the rich tapestry of social issues here.”

Logan, along with most of the board members, expressed concern over the loss of institutional knowledge with the loss of long time volunteers. “The amount of knowledge in Mark’s head is unfathomable,” said Kloster. “We need him to help with any transition.”

Beals, resigned to the board’s recommendation, said he will not abandon the department and will offer any assistance asked of him and continue to go on calls if allowed. He also said he has other volunteer opportunities that he will now consider in other areas of community service.

The mayor does not have to take the recommendation of the board. He can choose instead to fire Beals or hire or appoint a person outside the department, which the board made clear it does not want.

“Like it or not, the responsibility is mine,” said Navarre. “I’d rather be anywhere but here, but something has to change.”

Assistant Fire Chief Steve Faust, who made an impassioned statement supporting Beals at the last board meeting, said if Beals had to take a leave, the volunteers would support Elde stepping in. “We support Connie. She’s our mom.”


Reader Comments

resident writes:

So sad. A dedicated community member versus a part time employee of the mayor. Guess Navarre won't have much of a chance in the upcoming election, not in Seward...The borough's paid assistants need to go away and control back to the community. The political and personal mess is not worth the help. Mr. Navarre, your comment about not being able to control Mark is telling I have known and worked with Mr Beals for many years. I never, ever have known him be anything other than professional.


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