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Fire district facing legal, staff issues

By Lucas Lord
Chris Beal, the deputy chief of the Western Cass Fire Protection District resigned his position and said he is preparing to sue the fire board. In his resignation letter, Beal alleges gross negligence by the board, overstepping authority by board treasurer Kerri VanMeveren and years of financial irresponsibility by board members, resulting in an audit the board barely passed.

Even though the fire board is separate from the city, Beal’s letter was presented to Cleveland’s Board of Aldermen March 1 to explain why fire coverage is compromised in the area.

In his letter, Beal wrote, “I was led to believe that it was the previous command staff that created the toxic environment in the department. More and more, it has become apparent that the boards (sic) inability to accomplish anything has been the downfall of this district.”

It continued, “Chief George Poulignot had advised me that the board treasurer had contacted his fire chief at his full-time place of employment and that the treasurer had overstepped her needs and authority to harass him. I now have seen the same harassing behavior from the board treasurer who has decided to reach out to the mayor of my full-time job. Along with this, the same board member has asked and inquired about calls of people that she knows and where the district has responded.”

Beal said he believes VanMeveren’s looking into private medical information contained on call logs could be a violation of
the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, leading him to resign in preparation for legal action.

“I am not a district taxpayer, so it is not my money being spent or overseen by the district,” Beal wrote. “If it was, I would be interested in knowing where my taxpayer dollars were being spent and used.

“(Tax dollars) are being held hostage by the board so that the level of complete control will no longer allow the district to operate efficiently. I will not be returning.”

Beal is not alone in his resignation. Rep-resenting a number of EMS employees was Emergency Services Director Kevin Collins.

“This time in the next two to three weeks, everyone in the district will probably have resigned,” Collins said. “That means we will have no fire protection people here.”

With everyone resigning, Collins told the council he was coordinating an effort to recall VanMeveren.

“Our firefighters will be out petitioning for a recall election soon,” he said. “I am not going to turn over people’s medical information because that opens us up to lawsuits as well. This is because of the rude, assaulting and harassing behavior of a single board member. We’ve already contacted the attorney general’s office and he is working with us.”

VanMeveren said her actions were motivated by fears the board was mismanaging funds, a fact she said was confirmed by a 2021 state auditor’s report.

“I am hesitant to use the word corruption, but that’s exactly what the audit showed has been happening,” VanMev-eren said. “The new members of the board are working to make swift, positive changes. We are having to deal with the old guard who likes things as they are, but there are rules and laws that we are not following and have not followed for some time.”

She denied asking for personal records and call logs and said she only requested what was necessary to perform her duties and adhere to the audit’s ruling. She said problems are still being found in an Inter-national Organization for Standardization (ISO) audit. ISO audits are used to deter-mine risks, which in part helps determine insurance rates.

“I was actually the one who started the petition for a state audit of the fire district before I was on the board,” VanMeveren said. “I was very suspicious of gross mis-management of our tax dollars and low and behold I was right. In the audit going on right now, they have discovered there was a significant overcollection of tax dollars for the debt service levy because the previous treasurer on our board filed incorrect paperwork.”

According to VanMeveren, the board’s priorities have been misplaced for too long.

“We have bunker gear that’s 20 years old, but there is more interest in remodeling the stations than worrying about the fact that they have layers coming off. Our gear is coming close to being out of date,” she said.

“I know Kevin has made a lot of accusations today and I am happy to have a conversation with any of you to discuss it. I can assure you none of them are accurate.”

Beal’s resignation comes during a transitional period for the board as newly-selected members await their swearing in in April. There will be three new mem-bers, but there are only three openings, so no election is being held.

“The needs of our community are changing, and it seems to me that the previous administration of the fire department was not very involved in taking care of and managing the district,” said newly elected board member Darvin Sehildkenct.

A former firefighter himself, Sehild Kent said he is furious about the lack of maintenance on the fire engines.

“It’s been seven years since the fluids have been changed in those vehicles,” he said. “That to me is not acceptable what-soever.”

John Webb, who along with Mary Hard-man, will also be board members in April, said the board had failed to act transparently.

“In approaching the board and talking with the board, I asked for several things,

Webb said. “I asked for sunshine requests for their minutes and they said they didn’t have any minutes and didn’t know where they were.”

According to Missouri law, public entities like fire boards, are required to keep minutes and make them easily accessible for the public. While this was a concern of Webb, he said he was more concerned that the board was intentionally hiding some-thing.

“Somebody sabotaged our computers. Kerri called me to help because I do IT and she asked me to look at the computers. They had been left intentionally blank,” Webb said.

“I don’t know who did it. All I know is that when (former fire chief) Bill Franse left, the computers all stopped working. You become suspicious that if somebody left in a huff then they probably did some-thing in a huff.”

Franse has since moved out of state and could not be reached for comment and he did not respond to emails from The South Cass Tribune.

After hearing an hour of testimonies, Aldermen Skip Muller, who was serving as mayor pro-tem at the time, finally ad-dressed the room.

“As a city we are of course interested in anything that affects our police and fire departments,” Muller said. “I think our citizens are justified in their concern that there seems to be a lot of problems with the fire board. I don’t believe things are adding up.

“I know the council wants to help in regard to fixing things. We want the best coverage possible, but I’m not sure what the city can do to encourage fixing the Western Cass Department. Hopefully. these issues get resolved soon because the fire department serves everyone in this area.”

The fire board held a work session March 3. The next regular meeting will be at 7 p.m. March 16, at Station 5, 5 S. Rogers Rd., Cleveland.

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