Niles trustees respond to criticism over chief’s ouster

By By JAN GRIFFEY / Niles Daily Star
NILES -- Niles Township board members who voted to remove the township's fire chief from his job last week responded Monday to criticism about that decision.
The board on Monday, Jan. 26, voted four to three to remove Craig Lear from the chief's job, which he had held on a probationary status for the last year, said Niles Township Treasurer Jim Ringler.
After last Monday's vote to remove him, Lear said his ouster was political.
Ringler said that's not the case.
Ringler and township clerk Marge Durm-Hiatt, as well as trustees Dick Noble and Richard Cooper, voted against a motion made by township supervisor Bill Myers to keep Lear as chief.
Trustees Kevin Tonkin and Bob Jones voted in favor of Lear continuing in his job.
Ringler said he thinks the process used in hiring Lear was flawed from the start. He said the township's public safety board conducted interviews and recommended Lear for the position.
Ringler said his vote to remove Lear from the chief's post was not related to the recent automatic mutual aid agreement narrowly enacted by the township two weeks ago. That agreement, which Lear urged the board to support, cements an operating policy between the two departments that ensures city and township firefighters will respond together to all structure fires in the two municipalities.
Ringler voted against that agreement.
He also said the township's fire department was plagued by a morale problem before Lear was placed in the chief's position and that he questioned whether Lear had the administrative skills to bring the unite the department.
Apparently that morale problem is rooted in a rift between older, less technically-skilled volunteers and younger firefighters with a greater amount of formal training.
He said a number of firefighters claimed they weren't treated fairly or equally and that they didn't get answered when they sought them from Lear.
Ringler also said he thinks Trustee Richard Cooper, who is also a volunteer fire fighter, does not have a conflict of interest in serving both positions.
Durm-Hiatt: Situation is 'sad'
Township Clerk Marge Durm-Hiatt said she is "sad" about the situation at the township's fire department.
She said her vote to oust Lear from his job was based on several issues.
She said the fire department is required to do inspections, but those weren't accomplished during Lear's year as chief.
Durm-Hiatt also said under Lear, the township firefighters amassed 900 more hours of overtime than during the previous year.
Third, she said at the time of his hiring, she questioned whether Lear had the skills to bring together a clearly divided fire department.
That policy requires sealed bids. However, Durm-Hiatt said there are times when the board will waive those requirements.
Lear said Durm-Hiatt disliked him because he didn't agree to buy a used fire truck offered for sale by her nephew, who is a fire chief in Illinois.
Durm-Hiatt said that's not the case.
Durm-Hiatt also defended Richard Cooper's work on the township board and as a volunteer fire fighter.
She said, despite conflict, "When it comes to fighting fires, it goes away. They are firefighters first. Their personal lives are second.
She also said the present conflict "is not all on Craig. It's been deteriorating over there for the last five to eight years."
Cooper: No conflict of interest
Trustee Richard Cooper defended his 38 years of work on the township's fire department and said he does not have a conflict of interest serving on it and the township as a trustee.
Cooper also said he didn't want to give specifics about problems in the township's fire department.
He said he has no problem with an automatic mutual aid agreement between the township's fire department and the city's. "I think that would be a great asset to have help responding. Not only ours, all departments throughout the area are short-handed. But there were some other issues and other baggage that was in there that I wasn't in favor of," he said.

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