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Under fire

Grover Beach’s fire chief is feeling the heat of allegations of alcohol abuse, amateurism, and mismanagement

BY DANIEL BLACKBURN

Ron Anderson was staying the course; his level, bespectacled gaze masking any visible reaction to the conversation.

Here we go again, the city manager of tiny seaside Grover Beach might have been thinking. He found this negativity nettling.

Anderson had arrived unannounced to sit in on an interview, and now was listening to his fire chief, Jack Criswell, address sworn assertions of alcohol use by Criswell and other Grover Beach firefighters while on duty. Also on the table were statements by former department members, including a chaplain, centering on a lengthy laundry list of allegedly unsafe firefighting policies and procedures.

Criswell curtly dismissed any suggestion of improper alcohol use in the beach town’s tidy Seventh Street fire station.

"I’ve seen those statements. It is not true," Criswell said.

Lost on neither Criswell nor his boss was the distinct possibility that suggestions of unprofessional and inappropriate behavior by the fire department’s chief and his crew could easily dampen some grand growing plans currently under cultivation.

Last week, the city council and others heard Criswell’s dreams for a full-time department that would supplant the present 30-member volunteer force he commands. He and a secretary are the only full-time employees of the department, which responded to nearly 1,000 calls last year and operates with a $449,000 budget. The Grover Beach department often receives emergency assistance from neighboring community fire crews.

A full-time department would be a major change in city policy, would be funded primarily by Grover Beach residents, and would require widespread public support from local taxpayers. Bad publicity about alleged conduct by his top public safety officials might pose significant complexities.

But the real problem, Anderson suggested, is outsiders.

"There is a lot of external interest in what goes on in this community," he said. "And that bubbles over into the media … talk shows on the radio … the newspapers. This has a tendency to make it more difficult to accomplish things and diverts attention from the really important things."

Anderson paused before adding, "Eight or 10 people can bring a small community to its knees. They have accomplished nothing but slowing down progress. It’s dysfunctional."

Included in Anderson’s selection of municipal marauders are one-time members of his city’s police and fire departments, several of who have filed long-lived, contentious, and in some cases grossly expensive lawsuits. Accompanying investigations have uncovered over the past few months some decidedly embarrassing inside information about Grover Beach’s public safety services.

Anderson’s fire department blues stem from Criswell’s 2001 firing of one of his decorated volunteer firefighters, John Jensen, and the subsequent civil complaint Jensen brought against both the chief and the city for wrongful termination, negligent supervision, and termination under the "whistle blowers" statute.

Criswell is on his second tour as chief of Grover Beach’s skeletal fire department. He was fired in 2000 by then-interim city manager Arnold Dowdy for reasons Criswell, an at-will employee, said have never been explained to him. After Dowdy departed, Anderson took over the reins as city manager and reexamined the case against Criswell.

"I inherited a number of issues when I started," said Anderson, "and I needed to complete the process that had begun" regarding Criswell. "I investigated, and eventually interviewed, 25 or 30 people, most of them with the fire department, before I made my decision" to resurrect Criswell at an annual salary of $63,000.

Jensen, an eight-year veteran of the Grover Beach department and a "Hot Shot of the Year" on three separate occasions, said his problems started shortly after Criswell was rehired as fire chief in 2001.

According to Jensen’s complaint filed in San Luis Obispo County Superior Court, he and other firefighters were asked by Criswell when he took the department’s helm to give a personal assessment of the department.

Jensen’s response, according to the complaint, was not appreciated by Criswell.

Jensen "expressed his concern about alcohol in the firehouse and the drinking of alcohol by on-call firefighters," the complaint noted. "The chief should have initiated an investigation into the alleged actions. Instead, [Criswell] started retaliating against Jensen."

Jensen and others now contend such an investigation would have ensnared the chief himself in alcohol abuse allegations.

In December 1999, two years before Jensen was fired, Criswell was one of a number of firefighters who converged on the scene of a fire at Dunes Hot Dogs on Highway 1 and Grand Avenue.

Another responding firefighter was Bart Calmenson, assistant fire chief at neighboring Oceano. According to a sworn declaration filed with the court two years later, Criswell approached Calmenson that December night and said he "was glad [Calmenson] was there, because he [Criswell] had had a few too many drinks."

"That never happened," Criswell said.

Greg Ohmacht, a captain in the Grover Beach fire department before his 2001 resignation, said Criswell made a similar statement to him at a subsequent emergency call in September 2000.

"’I’m glad to see you. I probably should not be here, because I had a couple too many to drink tonight,’" Ohmacht reported Criswell told him. In his own sworn statement, Ohmacht said he detected a "strong odor of alcohol" on the chief’s breath.

Jensen said he also heard the "couple too many to drink" comment allegedly made by Criswell.

Criswell emphatically denied making such a statement.

"No. Absolutely not," he said when asked last week if he had ever been intoxicated while on duty. "That never happened."

Criswell issued the same denial in an April 2002 deposition taken in the Jensen case.

In another sworn deposition made that same month, former Grover Beach mayor and city council member Dick Neufeld said he had heard "several times of potential drinking … [involving] Criswell." Neufeld said at the time that he was concerned about accusations of fire personnel imbibing on the job, but admitted he had "no knowledge of any" subsequent investigation by city officials into the allegations.

There was no formal investigation primarily because Anderson had already completed his review of Criswell prior to rehiring him.

Nuefeld also said he believed Jensen was improperly discharged: "In my opinion, the reasons for [his] termination were not justified."

Under Grover Beach’s "strong manager" system of city government, an elected city council hires a city manager and turns over to him or her all hiring and firing authority over all other city employees. The council can terminate only the city manager.

Controversy surrounding Grover Beach Fire Department firefighting procedures and policies also are at issue in the ongoing legal tangle.

According to documents acquired by New Times, Rev. George Lepper, a certified firefighter who served as chaplain for the Grover Beach fire department from July 1999 to February 2001, blamed "a lack of leadership" for his resignation, and said he was worried about department personnel.

"A lot of these guys [Grover Beach firefighters] are playing at firefighting. They have a lack of professionalism. I am afraid someone will be killed," he told Alan Bond, a San Luis Obispo private investigator hired by Jensen last November.

Lepper said the department’s "good, professional firefighters are resigning," and added, "I will not live in the city of Grover Beach because it is not safe. They have a very unprofessional chief and group of firefighters."

Criswell, asked to comment on Lepper’s allegations, said, "I don’t know what he based that on," and then noted, "This may be a volunteer department, but it is right up there with the best in the county."

Dan Bradley, a chemistry and radiation technician at Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, was a volunteer firefighter at Grover Beach for 10 years before resigning in March 2002.

"The chief is clueless at a [fire] scene," Bradley told investigator Bond. "When I resigned, I told [City Manager] Anderson that he should not have hired Criswell back … [the fire department] is not a safe place to work." Bradley said Anderson told him "the only reason was because [Anderson] didn’t want the chief to sue the city. Anderson also said not to worry because he was watching the chief," Bradley alleged.

Criswell doesn’t agree with claims about safety.

"I’d take issue with any statement that says this is not a safe department," Criswell said. "Those statements are made by people from the outside." Criswell added that he was "hearing [Bradley’s comments] for the first time. Dan didn’t raise any issues related to that. If Dan had problems, he should have gone through the proper channels."

Ormacht, a certified firefighter, fire inspector, and emergency medical technician (EMT), worked for the Grover Beach department for eight years.

"Chief Criswell was scary as an incident commander," Bradley said. "One time he was in an engine and reported that a fire was out. We reduced to Code 2 and when we arrived, the attic was engulfed. He should have been reprimanded, but he’s the chief."

Criswell said he "can’t recall" such an incident.

Ormacht said he got an anonymous telephone call after his resignation from a male caller who told Ormacht that if his house caught fire, no one would respond.

Criswell said he didn’t make the call and doesn’t know who did.

Regarding Ormacht’s statements, Criswell observed: "Greg is a friend of Jensen’s. He’d do what he could to help."

* * *

The conflict surrounding Criswell is compounded in the eyes of some local residents by recent disclosures of a former Grover Beach police officer, Todd Miller. Miller said he was fired by Police Chief John Bradbury for writing too many citations to people caught driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI). (See "Good Cop, Bad Cop," New Times, Oct. 10, 2002.)

Some of the culprits arrested or cited by Miller and several of his fellow officers, the erstwhile cop alleged in his own lawsuit, were sons of San Luis Obispo police officers and others with political connections.

Miller, a former motorcycle officer, decorated on several occasions by MADD and the state for his contributions to the battle against drunken driving, has been embroiled in contentious litigation with Grover Beach officials for the past 18 months. According to Miller’s estimates, the city has spent more than $400,000 to defend his wrongful termination lawsuit. City Manager Anderson did not quibble with that number, even though it’s close to the fire department’s total annual budget: "It has cost us a lot," he said.

Miller was fired after Grover Beach police department officials accused him of mishandling a burglary investigation. Miller said his departure was the result of his refusal to reduce the level of his DUI enforcement, and to conform to the currently existing culture of the department. Two former police officers, also forced out by the department, backed Miller’s story.

Part of Miller’s counterattack against his old police department employers has been to take to the airways.

When Grover Beach’s city manager Anderson talked ruefully last week about problems "bubbling over into the media … outsiders … and radio talk shows," he may have been taking about Miller, who has enough hours on KVEC’s Dave Congalton’s talk show to earn a pilot’s license. Miller also has made other on-air appearances to widely broadcast his conflict with the police department.

Anderson said last week he was prevented from talking about the Miller litigation, but he certainly could discuss Jensen’s complaint.

"We are in the process of depositions [in the Jensen case], and the fact is that depositions are not protected in the same way as personnel matters," said Anderson. "But in 20 hours of deposition, not one single statement that is credible or [contains] substantive information has been made to back up his claims. It’s all second-, third-, fourth-hand."

"Some–like the people you’ve mentioned here–don’t work well within the system," Anderson informed a reporter. "So there is a lot of unsubstantiated information out there … lots of energy being used, and it’s not positive. There is much negative energy in this community. This doesn’t help get out the truth."

Asked if he was the right person to run a full-time fire department in Grover Beach, Criswell said, "Yes, I am."

All in all, Anderson suggested, there really isn’t any problem at all with the fire department. It’s those pesky outsiders. He said he stands squarely behind his embattled fire chief.

And since he’s apparently the only guy with a vote, Anderson’s opinion may signal the end of the matter. Æ

News editor Daniel Blackburn can be reached at dblackburn@newtimesslo.com




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