WednesdayPosted May 3, 2017 at 2:38 PM Updated May 3, 2017 at 5:20 PM
By Susan Vela
BELVIDERE — Volunteer firefighters angered by a decision to dismiss Boone County Fire District 2 Chief Brad Bartell are asking for changes that include allowing voters to elect the district’s board of trustees.
The firefighters are upset that trustees Jack Ryan, Kevin Stark and Jim Marrs replaced Bartell with Deputy Chief Bob Koehn two months ago. The trustees are appointed by the Boone County Board chairman. Voters would be required to approve a change to a system of elected trustees.
Trustees cited a number of complaints regarding Bartell, who remains the Boone County Emergency Management Agency coordinator. They include accusations of mismanagement, missing equipment and failure to follow proper protocols, according to a 40-point list of complaints acquired from the board by the firefighters through a Freedom of Information Act request.
“Do you truly feel what you’re doing is best for the community, our fire district and our department by removing Chief Bartell from his position when he’s done so much good for this community?” Joshua Norek, one of the district’s approximately 45 volunteer firefighters, asked the board during a packed public meeting on Monday. It was the second time in two weeks that firefighters filled a public meeting to express support for Bartell.
The trustees didn’t respond Monday and also declined to comment after the meeting.
Firefighters plan to circulate petitions intended to put a trustee referendum on the March 2018 ballot. The district covers about 145 square miles, including the unincorporated communities of Irene, Herbert and Garden Prairie.
County Board Chairman Karl Johnson would lose the power to appoint the trustees, but said he would not oppose the referendum. More than anything, he wants the trustees and firefighters to move forward.
“I truly appreciate the show of camaraderie ... that Chief Bartell built,” Johnson said at Monday’s meeting. “I think that’s amazing. What you guys have to do to save a life or save a building ... you have to trust each other. (But) it’s not just up to the trustees. I think it’s up to you, too. My challenge to both of you is to work together.”
Some county residents like the idea of elected trustees.
“That should happen,” said Linda Treu, who lives in Boone County but not in the district. “That needs to happen because otherwise, you will end up with the same families, the same people getting in constantly. It’s time for a change.”
Firefighters Association Treasurer Brent Bryan worries today’s trustees aren’t suited to represent district residents.
“We pretty much lost all trust in them,” Bryan said. “We need people on that board that are going to be nonbiased. We need nonbiased opinions.”
Across the state, there are some 800 small fire protection districts. Appointment by the county board chairman and elections are the two most common ways that trustee positions are filled, said Cheri Breneman, administrator for the Illinois Association of Fire Protection Districts.
County Board member Brad Stark, who is Trustee Kevin Stark’s son, is opposed to making trustee an elected position.
“The problem with that is anybody can get elected,” he said. “What if we get ... people who do nothing about managing. We could run that district into the ground.”