What does Camas really want from its fire chief?

Today marks the third week since former Camas Fire Chief Leo Leon, a veteran of 38 years in the emergency services field, was unexpectedly fired by Mayor Paul Dennis.

And while Dennis, the city council, City Administrator Lloyd Halverson and the Camas Fire Department might be viewing Leon’s ouster as the price of progress, residents of Camas maybe ought to be asking a few questions. They should be wondering why their fire chief, a guy who most people thought was doing an admirable job in a truly pressure cooker position, was suddenly ousted against his will while offered nothing but a few trendy buzz words for the reasons he was canned.

Leon as you may remember was hired as the Camas Fire Chief in 2005, after being selected from an initial pool of nearly 40 candidates. At the time of his hiring Leon was the guy everyone wanted for the job. Mayor Dennis and most council members at that time couldn’t sing Leon’s praises enough. He had a long, exemplary record of serving in the emergency services field. He seemed to be on the same page with what the city wanted in its fire department. Better yet he was open, honest and seemed to quickly gain the trust of everyone he worked with.

Fast forward to Leon’s firing in 2011, and oh how things change. The statements to the media from Dennis and Halverson three weeks ago sounded like excerpts from a handbook on how to spin an unpopular firing – while really not revealing anything.

“I appreciated that Leo accepted the position six years ago, and he accomplished much – especially in the first several years,” said Halverson in a statement published Feb. 1 in the Post-Record. “More recently there have been setbacks, confidence has been lost and now it is time for a change of leadership in the fire department.”

“I think we need to bring in someone new,” Dennis added in the Post-Record article. “Leon has done all he can do. There are things that need to be done in the department that are beyond Leo’s capabilities. There is a need to define a new norm”

Perhaps dropping a hint as to the major reason Leon was fired, Dennis did offer this. “A new strategic plan will need to be developed that will consider the city’s potential to be a partner with other jurisdictions.”

If we can read through all the spin from the city, it may come down to this. Leon was fired not for failing to do a top quality job running a fire department that did exemplary work in protecting its citizens, at a reasonable cost to the taxpayers. He was fired not for failing to stretch existing, although dwindling, resources as much as possible or trying to work fairly with a historically not-so-agreeable firefighters and paramedics union.

No, it appears Leon, a respected 38-year veteran of the emergency services field may have met his end in Camas in part, because he just didn’t have all the answers on how to suddenly form partnerships with other fire jurisdictions – – in effect providing new revenue streams for the Camas Fire Department. Apparently, as in life itself, running the Camas Fire Department is a lot about the money.

So, as a Camas resident I’m thinking three things right now. First, I’m wishing Leon all the best and thanking him for his fine service here. Second, I’m wondering how on earth any new fire chief can possibly live up to the astronomical expectations of Dennis, the city council and the union.

And third, I’m wondering how many prospective fire chief candidates are going to research what Leon went through here in Camas and if offered the job, say “no thanks.”

— Mike Gallagher

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