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Los Pinos Fire wants to advertise for new chief in March

District has been in turmoil over firing and recall effort
The Los Pinos Fire Protection District is looking for a new chief, but finding the right candidate might be difficult until a controversy dies down. Some employees and residents are leading a recall effort against the board of directors after a deputy chief was abruptly fired.

Candidates who are interested in being the new chief of the Los Pinos Fire Protection District won't apply for the position while turmoil is roiling the district.

That was the message Interim Fire Chief Larry Behrens gave to members of the district board on Tuesday night.

"My biggest concern is that we don't have a very attractive situation to offer them," Behrens said during the board meeting. "We're going to lose good candidates."

In December, the board fired Deputy Chief Kevin Ratzmann. He and other community members are collecting signatures to recall the five members of the Los Pinos board, citing unethical behavior by board members and the past chief, Tom Aurnhammer.

After Aurnhammer retired in December, Behrens, who was the Los Pinos chief for 15 years, is back serving on an interim basis.

Behrens is recommending that he, the board, and Los Pinos staff spend the next month writing a job description for the chief's position, then advertise the position in March. "We need to get some of this behind us," he said of the upheaval. "I'd like to wait a few months, and show that candidate there's something they can work with."

Ideally, Behrens hopes a new candidate could be hired in April or May, then he would stay on for another month or so before retiring again.

"This isn't about money," he said of his decision to return to the district, at least for the short-term. "It's about principle. The reason I sit right here is principle."

Behrens said he's working to rebuild trust in the department.

"With the proper respect, we can build those relationships and put some stability back underneath the organization," he said. Behrens said he would like current employees to have input into the job description, along with meeting the candidates who come in for interviews.

The recall committee has until Feb. 11 to gather 300 signatures for petitions to recall the board members. If enough signatures are valid, a recall election will be held.

One person attending Tuesday's board meeting asked about the department's response to a fatal car collision in Ignacio on Dec. 18.

The department had to transfer seven patients from the scene, and one person died, Deputy Chief Brad Egger told the board. Los Pinos requested assistance from the Upper Pine and Durango fire departments to help transfer the patients.

"We were already on another call" when the collision occurred, Egger said, adding that another call came in while the staff was handling the collision.

"We were definitely short-handed," Behrens said. It was a good decision by the commanders to ask the other departments to help with the emergency response, he added, noting that this is why the departments have mutual-aid agreements. "We blew the whistle, we called them all."

Behrens said as interim chief, he is not going to the scenes of fires and medical incidents.

"It's not my intent to get involved in the day-to-day operations," he said.

He said his primary task is working on the 2019 budget, trying to cut costs in the district, which is facing decreased property taxes from oil and gas revenues.

In the past, the department was paying for "wants, not needs," he said. "We have to live within our means." The department has been using capital funds to cover the shortfall, but that can't last indefinitely, he added.

The cost-cutting won't affect departmental safety, he said.

"I will never, ever, ever affect safety," he said. "Never."

The board is set to next meet on Feb. 11, the day that the recall petitions have to be submitted to the La Plata County Clerk and Recorder's Office.

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