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Former Chief Backs Out After Being Offered Old Job, Leading to Controversy in Bellevue-Dayton

The Bellevue-Dayton Fire Department is expected to have a new chief on Wednesday after months of interviews, accusations from firefighters of bad management, and a reversal by the former chief who had originally been tapped to return to his post.

Chief Michael Auteri announced his retirement in January.

In April, interviews were conducted to find his replacement.

Afterwards, it was announced that Auteri would be re-hired to lead the department again.

Soon after, Auteri announced to leaders of the two cities and the fire board that governs the department that he would not return, after all.

Auteri's potential return as chief sparked a letter to city officials from the union representing firefighters at Bellevue-Dayton in which they characterize a hostile work environment and poor management. Some in the city questioned why an internal candidate was not hired to replace him, and others wondered whether there had been a pre-determined deal for Auteri to retire and then return.

Dayton Mayor Virgil Boruske said that Auteri was concerned about adversely affecting his state retirement - both with his original announcement to depart, which preceded changes to the state pension system approved by the General Assembly, and which have since been ruled by a judge as unconstitutional, and with his decision not to return.

But there was no pre-arranged agreement to bring Auteri back, Boruske said.

"He was the best candidate," Boruske said. 

The cities of Bellevue and Dayton have a unique set-up for fire service. The cities merged their respective fire departments eighteen years ago and jointly fund it through their general funds rather than by the establishment of a special taxing district. A fire board governs the department by approving the hiring of its chief and its annual budget. The fire board is made up of six people, with two members from the Dayton city council, two members from the Bellevue city council, and two citizens, with one appointed from each of the two cities.

When the chief's position opened up, applications were sought and vetted by each city's administrator and then submitted for consideration to the fire board's personnel committee, and the two mayors, Boruske, and Bellevue's Ed Riehl.

The personnel committee is made up of Bellevue city councilman David Slater and Dayton resident Sara Bin, Boruske's daughter. Between the two of them and the two mayors, it was recommended in April that Auteri be hired again.

The fire board agreed with a 5 to 1 vote, with Slater, Bin, Dayton city councilman and board chair Jeff Haas, Bellevue city councilman Steve Guidugli, and Bellevue resident Tom Quirk voting in favor. Dayton city councilman Ben Baker voted against it.

"I thought there were some other candidates that deserved equal consideration," Baker said.

"Auteri was without a doubt, with the best experience, the best candidate," Boruske said. He and Baker are running against each other for mayor in this year's election. In the 2014 election, when Boruske unseated longtime mayor Ken Rankle, he had great support from the firefighters' union, which is not formally recognized by either city and does not negotiate contracts as happens in other nearby cities like Newport and Covington.

The union, Local 3751, was not happy with the prospect of Auteri returning. In a letter submitted by union president Jennifer Duke and signed by "Members of Bellevue-Dayton Firefighters Local 3751" to members of both cities' councils and the fire board, a long list of grievances was spelled out. The union charged that Auteri created tension among its members, lacks compassion for employees facing hardships, and lacked pride in the department and the cities it serves, among others.

Auteri could not be reached for comment.

"I felt like I had to hire the best candidate for the job and what I thought about that letter is that it was a few individuals," Mayor Boruske said. "I don't think it was the whole department."

Bellevue Mayor Ed Riehl said that he took the union's concerns into consideration. "But, I know where it was coming from," Riehl said. "The other two guys (from within the department) who applied for the job drove that bus. We looked at all the candidates. It's always something we try to do, to hire from within."

A source within the fire department's union told The River City News that the letter submitted to the cities' leaders was unanimously approved by the union's members after a vote.

Neither the mayors nor fire board chair and Dayton councilman Jeff Haas would say who is being recommended for the chief's position on Wednesday. Haas said that three internal candidates were interviewed in the first go-round but that only one was interviewed this time.

He signaled that the new candidate to be named on Wednesday is not from within the department.

"I would say (the union) would probably be a little upset over it, but at the end of the day, we're going to try to put someone in that position who can lead that department the best way they can," Haas said. "We want what's best for the cities and what's best for the department, too."

He said the letter from the union about Auteri had resulted in some board members having "some real concerns" but others "thought there wasn't much to it."

Asked whether the employees would be satisfied with the new chief to be named this week, Bellevue Mayor Ed Riehl said, "Time will tell."

Jim Richmond, who has been serving as interim chief, was among the internal candidates who had sought the permanent position. He is the candidate that Dayton resident Mary Ann Krieg believes should get the job. She spoke to both city councils at their meetings in June.

"I feel like the fire department is getting screwed big time," Krieg said. "I believe (Richmond) should have gotten the promotion. He is qualified with twenty-two years of service and he has done a lot for the city and knows a lot about the fire department."

Krieg accused the mayors and fire board of originally "trying to be sneaky" in rehiring Auteri.

The Kentucky Retirement Systems could not delve into specifics about Auteri's retirement when questioned by The River City News, but directed inquiries to a published document about the retire/re-hire process. It specifically bars pre-arranged agreements, which city officials on both sides of O'Fallon Avenue, the cities' east-west dividing line, deny was in place.

Dayton Councilman Ben Baker also wanted a more serious look at internal candidates the second time around, too.

"I thought we had some great candidates internally from the last round that should have been reconsidered, but weren't," he said. "That led to a lesser field."

The Bellevue-Dayton Fire Board will meet Wednesday, June 27, at 6 p.m. at the Callahan Center in Bellevue. There are two items on the agenda: the hiring of a new fire chief and the department's budget. The board is expected to discuss the chief's position in closed session. No public comment will be permitted because it is a special meeting, Haas said.

Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher

Photo: Bellevue-Dayton Firehouse on Sixth Avenue in Dayton (RCN file)