The Los Pinos Fire Protection District has brought back Larry Behrens as its acting volunteer interim fire chief as the district board conducts a search for a new chief and deputy chief.
In the meantime, the former deputy chief, Kevin Ratzmann, and a Los Pinos captain, Seth St. Germain, are on a committee working to recall the district's five board members. Ratzmann was fired by the district on Nov. 19.
The recall committee has 50 days to collect 300 signatures from residents who live in the fire district to remove chairman James Brown and board members Frank Weis, Kirk Becker, Mark Williams and Paul Blocker.
"I don't know what to say about it," Brown said of the recall petition. "I hope the citizens do their research before they sign."
Even with the turmoil surrounding the district's administration, Brown said he and Behrens believe the board can find qualified replacements for Ratzmann and Chief Tom Aurnhammer, who is set to retire at the end of December.
"We have good people in the department and the community," Brown said, and the board should be able to hire new leaders "in a timely manner."
The board appointed Behrens as interim chief on Dec. 10. He's volunteering his time "out of the goodness of his heart," Brown added.
In the meantime, Ratzmann thinks the recall committee will be able to gather 300 signatures "fairly quickly."
The recall committee is holding meetings at 6 p.m. on Monday at the TARA Community Center at 333 Milton Lane in Arboles, then from 10 a.m. to noon and 5 to 7 p.m. on Tuesday at the Ignacio Community Library. The public is invited to attend.
The group has a Facebook page, LPFPD recall, with meeting times and information.
Ratzmann said he was fired in retaliation for complaining to the board about the behavior of Chief Aurnhammer.
In a written response, Los Pinos board members said they hired an independent third party with employment law experience to investigate the retaliation claim, and he found no evidence of retaliation.
"The results of that investigation and Mr. Ratzmann's conduct during the investigation resulted in the board's decision to terminate him," the letter states. "After the initial retaliation investigation was concluded, the board requested that the investigator conduct an investigation of several issues that had been recently reported involving Mr. Ratzmann. Mr. Ratzmann also inaccurately characterized the $23,000 retirement bonus paid to Chief Aurnhammer. The retirement bonus paid to Chief Aurnhammer was paid in accordance with district policy adopted several years earlier and the terms of his employment agreement as Deputy Fire Chief. Chief Aurnhammer was not promoted to fire chief but was appointed to the position when the recruiting process for a replacement for retiring Chief Larry Behrens failed to produce a suitable candidate for the position. The board was fully aware of the retirement payment when his employment as fire chief was negotiated. There was never a request or an expectation that Chief Aurnhammer would repay the money he was entitled to as retiring deputy chief."
Brown said while the past few months have been difficult, the board and employees of Los Pinos continue to work hard to serve their community.
Los Pinos Fire covers 325 square miles in southeastern La Plata County and parts of Archuleta County, including Ignacio, Arboles, Allison, Oxford and the corridor along La Plata County Road 318. It also covers parts of San Juan County, New Mexico.
Aurnhammer became fire chief in 2016, after then-Chief Larry Behrens retired. Aurnhammer had served as deputy chief since 2003. Before joining, he worked as a fire chief in Farmington.
The next meeting of the Los Pinos board is at 7 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 7, in the fire department headquarters.