Camas announces termination of fire chief

Leo Leon was hired in 2005

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The city of Camas has fired its fire chief.

Camas Mayor Paul Dennis announced Friday that Fire Chief Leo Leon’s employment with the city would end effective Jan. 31. According to a press release, the decision was made because Leon’s “leadership of the Camas Fire Department has not been meeting expectations.”

“I appreciated that Leo accepted the position six years ago, and he accomplished much — especially in the first several years,” said City Administrator Lloyd Halverson in a statement. “More recently, there have been setbacks, confidence has been lost, and now it is time for a change in the leadership of the fire department. Mayor Dennis as the appointing authority has acted decisively, and now it is time to focus on the future.”

Leon, 65, said he met with Dennis and Halverson on Jan. 24, and “they came to the decision that they no longer wanted me here.” He said he refused to resign or retire, so instead was fired.

“There was no written list of ‘failures’ or ‘disappointments,'” Leon said. “It was all kind of vague.”

To Leon, the firing was unexpected. He said he had not received any unfavorable performance reviews, and Dennis and Halverson had not expressed to him a desire to take the fire department in a new or different direction.

Leon, whose last day was Friday, said he is not aware that any confidence had been lost between him and the 41 rank-and-file firefighters and paramedics, describing the relationship with the union as a “reasonable rapport.”

He said he felt that as a city department head he wasn’t getting support from Dennis and Halverson. That impression continued when he submitted a series of solutions for the 2011 budget crisis that is currently impacting the fire department’s emergency medical services fund. Due in large part to reduced property tax revenues, a net loss of at least $310,000 is predicted this year — according to financial information released by the city on Saturday.

One of the handful of options proposed by Leon was to opt out of an agreement between Camas and Washougal that was implemented in 2009, which mandates that a staffed Camas ambulance be stationed within Washougal city limits. Up until that time, CFD paramedics responded to Washougal calls from its downtown Camas station.

Leon said his point of view is that the agreement should be dissolved until the emergency medical service fund’s financial situation becomes more stable.

“I don’t believe in funding a project I have no money to fund,” Leon said. “Having an ambulance over there is a good thing, but not the way they are doing it.”

For the past 32 years, as part of a voter approved emergency medical services property tax levy, Camas has been part of another agreement that stipulates that the CFD provide paramedic services to residents living within the city of Washougal and the boundaries of the East County Fire and Rescue district in unincorporated Clark County.

“The only way this system is going to survive is to be fiscally responsible for the budget,” Leon said. “I’m in support of having an ambulance in Washougal, as long as we can financially do it — without negatively impacting all three departments.”

Leon, 65, came on board as the city’s fire chief in January 2005, following the retirement of former chief Dave Artz in February 2004. Leon, who has been working in the emergency services field for a total of 38 years, primarily in California, was selected from an initial pool of nearly 40 candidates.

Dennis said Leon made some great strides for the fire department during his first three years with the city, including restoring public confidence that had been lost in the years prior.

Today, however, Dennis indicated that there is a need to define a “new norm,” for the CFD.

“I think we need to bring in someone new,” the mayor explained. “[Leon] has done all he can do. There are things that need to be done in the department that are beyond Leo’s capabilities.”

“The new person selected will need a fresh perspective on fire service trends and tactics in running a fire department,” Dennis continued. “A new strategic plan will need to be developed that will consider the city’s potential to be a partner with other jurisdictions.”

The search for Leon’s permanent replacement begins immediately, and is expected to take 90 to 120 days. Filling-in during the interim is Monte Brachmann, the city’s former public works director who retired after 37 years in March 2010. He served for 25 years as a CFD volunteer firefighter.

“I am pleased that Monte Brachmann will be re-joining the Camas leadership team,” Dennis said. “He is a proven and effective manager, well known to our City Council, fire department and staff, and the community.”

The mayor said Brachmann, who started Monday, will be a temporary employee of the city. He will be paid approximately $9,000 per month — mid-range salary for a fire chief under the city’s step system.

As a result of his termination, Leon receives three months severance pay and health benefits to fulfill the terms of the his 2005 employment contract. Leon’s current annual salary is $120,192. He also cashed out unused sick leave and vacation time. Leon has agreed not to appeal the decision.

“I wasn’t willing to do what they wanted me to do,” Leon said. “They wanted me to retire or quit, but I wouldn’t do that. I chose to end my 38-year career by termination. That’s not the way I would have wanted to do it, but I am personally OK with it.”

This article can also be found in the Feb. 1 Post-Record print edition.