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Chief's job hangs on election of fire board

With three seats open on the board, Mike Morgan may see his support disappear.

By JENNIFER FARRELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 26, 2000


SPRING HILL -- Mike Morgan won't get a single vote when residents head to the polls next month to elect Spring Hill Fire Rescue District commissioners. As chief, his name is not on the ballot.

But depending on who wins the three seats up for grabs on the five-member commission, he could be looking for a job. In a year that has seen few major divisive issues, but where control of the board is at stake, Morgan -- and perceptions of his performance -- are at the center of the campaign.

And given the sometimes strained relations Morgan has shared with some members of the board in his five years as chief, the election may turn out to be a referendum on his leadership.

For the past four years, Morgan has been largely supported by a three-member majority, made up of Chairman Gene Panozzo, Al Kroner and Gene Wright. Dennis Andrews and Bob Kanner have spoken out against the chief and in June gave him low marks on a job evaluation.

And while Morgan says he has worked to improve communications with commissioners, an area that Kanner and Andrews found lacking in the past, the issue is one that all five candidates agree is important.

Andrews and Kroner are seeking re-election to their second four-year terms, while Wright opted not to run. Vying against the incumbents for the at-large, non-partisan, volunteer positions are three first-time candidates, Jeffrey Hollander, Donald Knutson and Richard Martin. The top three vote-getters win seats.

The five candidates' opinions of Morgan vary widely.

Knutson, 68, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Air Force Reserve, is perhaps the chief's most strident critic. Pointing to a host of initiatives backed by the administration since he started attending meetings earlier this year, Knutson paints Morgan as a spendthrift, eager to squander the district's money on luxury items that amount to "toys."

Citing a failed move to buy a ladder truck and another to install intercom systems in the fire stations, Knutson said the chief needs strict financial oversight. He also blasts Morgan for driving an unmarked district car, for not wearing a uniform and even for being overweight.

Knutson, who said he recruited Martin to run for the commission, said he leans toward looking for a new chief but falls short of calling for Morgan's dismissal.

"Certainly there are people that I would prefer to see (as) chief," he said. "But I don't know if there's enough there to merit a replacement."

Andrews, 47, a former assistant Spring Hill fire chief, has a checkered history with Morgan. He resigned in September 1995 after Morgan criticized him for making a series of poor decisions mostly related to district finances.

As for Morgan's performance, he says the chief has done an adequate job managing the district but has failed to move the department forward significantly.

Andrews, who works as an instructor at the Florida State Fire College in Ocala, said he currently has no intention of replacing Morgan. "I vowed four years ago that I would not be vindictive," he said.

But Andrews still sees room for improvement. "I haven't seen any great strides forward in any particular area."

Hollander, 48, who owns HNA Computer Systems, praised Morgan's ability to run the district from an operational standpoint, but he blamed a lack of communication for creating what he called a "constant clash" with current board members.

Hollander said it is the commission's responsibility to give the chief a clear set of guidelines and to make sure he follows them.

He suggested notifying each commissioner by beeper when the district's resources are stretched, which he thinks happens regularly when engines and ambulances are dispatched to help neighboring departments.

"All the administration has to do is keep the board informed on a real-time basis," he said.

Martin, likewise, gives Morgan high marks for his administration of the district, but he lists communication with commissioners and subordinates as weak spots. He questions why Morgan has become an issue in the campaign.

"From what I've seen, he seems to be doing his job as chief well," Martin said. "The mere fact that every time I turn around people are asking me about the chief makes me wonder."

Martin, 31, is a territory manager for Pro Equipment, which deals in outdoor power equipment. He said he would judge all employees fairly, if elected. "I plan to be an objective person," he said. "I'm not looking to be part of a lynch mob."

Kroner, 66, who works part time as director of marketing for Econo Lodge in New Port Richey, said he has been happy with Morgan's performance. He added that he does not believe in micro-managing the administration.

Kroner hopes the election will bring a new sense of harmony to the commission, which he said has sometimes suffered from infighting and petty politics. "I just hope that they go in there with an open mind."

Kroner supports keeping the chief.

"The easiest thing is to fire a person," he said. "The hardest thing is to train him and train him right and have him do the job."

Asked about challenges facing the district, the candidates agree that planning for population growth will be a top priority. Earlier this year, Andrews called for the district to develop a long-range plan that will incorporate county growth statistics, and the board held workshops to begin discussing the issue.

The candidates also agree that managing the district's resources will require meticulous planning and fiscal responsibility as Spring Hill grows.

Morgan said he has focused on fiscal responsibility since he took over as chief, and he has also worked with the commission to develop long-range plans. He points to a list of accomplishments the district has made under his leadership including doubling the department's advanced life support units and instituting an active public education program featuring a fire safety house.

He is uncomfortable being the focus of the campaign and says he is happy to defend his record, especially when it comes to improved communication with the commission.

"I have toned down my response to the board. I think I have made a big improvement in that manner," he said. "I feel that four out of the five board members would give me high marks in the job that I do . . . We have gotten a lot done together."

He dismissed Andrews' criticism that he has not led the district significantly forward. "If he doesn't think that this place has advanced in five years, then he hasn't been paying attention to what's been going on," Morgan said. "I have never been able to keep Mr. Andrews happy."

Morgan said he aims to run the district as he sees fit, according to direction given from the commission.

"The board has the obligation to employ the fire chief that's going to handle the fire district to the best of their direction," he said, adding that, once hired, the chief should be allowed to do his job without being micro-managed. "If they're unhappy with that they certainly have the option of replacing that person. I serve at the pleasure of the board."

As for candidates' perceptions that there is friction between him and the commission, Morgan blamed rumor.

"If they're not currently sitting on the board, then they have only heard one viewpoint," he said. "I would ask that they keep an open mind and listen to the input from me."

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