Petersburg’s city council Monday approved the first reading of an ordinance restructuring the hierarchy and responsibilities in the local fire department. That was despite objections from the volunteer fire chief, who took issue with concerns over volunteer conduct.

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Fire chief Jerod Cook responded to comments made last month by Jim Agner, the city’s police chief, at a meeting of the public safety advisory board about conduct of volunteers in the department. “ I find that though chief Agner has been given information by someone, he failed to check that information for truth and accuracy,” Cook said. “I find his statements to be inaccurate and it does not reflect on the true situation that is going in the fire department at all. Had chief Agner taken the time to investigate this issue or even talk to me or other members of the department other than his source, he would have found a much different situation than he led the public and the city to believe.”

The proposed ordinance restructures the department and puts the volunteer chief under one of the two paid city employees, either the fire marshal or EMS director. It also spells out that volunteers can be dismissed for just cause and it gives the department head and volunteer chief joint responsibility for the volunteers.

Agner argued for the ordinance change at last month’s public safety board meeting with concerns about unsubstantiated rumors of drinking and sex among the department members on city property and during calls. Cook Monday night disputed the rumors. He said because of his training during his time as chief he has made changes in the department, including a policy of no drinking at the fire station.

“This change moved those who would have a few beers after a drill from the fire station to the local bars, where the public started noticing them. On one occasion last year on July 3rd that I’m aware of members responded to a fire call from the bar after they had been drinking. They did not respond in fire gear and they did not respond on a fire vehicle, they walked. They also got a letter of reprimand and six months probation for this action because I inadvertently gave one of them a task at the fire scene without thinking about their condition. I’m sure there are other occasions where members have come to the community’s emergencies after having had a few drinks but I did not have them documented or reported to me and I did not witness it firsthand,” Cook said.

Cook said he had no reason to believe volunteers have been having sex in the new fire station. He said he did not support the new ordinance and said the city’s liability for volunteers does not change with a different chain of command. “Making the head of the department the boss of the chief does not change that at all. What it does change is the chief’s ability to insist on training in areas he feels it is needed. It changes the chief’s ability to get equipment he feels the volunteers need. It changes the chief’s ability to insist on things getting done that affect the safety of the volunteers,” he said.

Cook said he was not interested in being chief again after this year and plans to step down from the fire department this winter. He asked for an outside investigation to clear his name and the department’s.
Councilor Rick Braun did not want to investigate and said he was happy with city manager Steve Giesbrecht’s handling of the issue. “I believe Steve when he says he looked into the matter and it was unsubstantiated, the rumors were unsubstantiated,” Braun said. “I’m happy with that and if there’s more to it than that, I’d prefer not to know, I guess.”

The city manager Giesbrecht also recommended against an investigation. “I think we could do an investigation and I think we would find pieces and parts of what we’ve talked about are substantiated. On the other hand I don’t think it does anybody any good to drag folks through the mud. I appreciate Jerrod’s opinion on this. But reality is, I think this is a good ordinance. I think it lays out a chain of command that would work really well.”

Councilors passed one amendment to the ordinance removing council approval for selection of the department head. The amended ordinance passed in first reading by a 5-0 vote. Mark and John Jensen were not at the meeting.