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Nevis Council, firefighters hammer out ordinance update

A point of contention between council members and fire department members was the selection process for a new fire chief.

Nevis city hall.jpeg
Nevis City Hall
Park Rapids Enterprise file photo
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The Nevis City Council had a special workshop Thursday to discuss an update of the city’s fire department ordinance.

A point of contention between council members and fire department members was the selection process for a new fire chief.

Mayor Jeanne Thompson urged the creation of a hiring board, including firefighters elected by their peers and city council representatives, and opening consideration to applicants from outside the department, based on their qualifications and an interview.

However, firefighters Trevor Nicklason, Brent Nicklason, Emily Whitaker and Nick Skjonsby voiced concern that department members would not accept a fire chief they did not know and directly elect.

Thompson argued that making decisions through elected representatives is the essence of American government, and that the city has a stake in hiring since the fire chief is a management-level employee.

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Working their way through the city's fire department ordinance during a special city council workshop May 5, 2022 are, clockwise from left, Nevis Mayor Jeanne Thompson, city council member Katie Rittgers, firefighters Trevor Nicklason, Nick Skjonsby, Emily Whitaker and Brent Nicklason, Deputy City Clerk Kimberly Wright, Assistant Fire Chief Josh Winter and council member Sue Gray.
Robin Fish / Park Rapids Enterprise

She also noted that in the recent past, the department has had trouble finding a fire chief who wanted to carry both the tactical and administrative responsibilities of the job.

Firefighters suggested ways these tasks could be delegated to assistant fire chefs, but Thompson said the fire chief will ultimately be responsible.

Another difference of perspective arose regarding the volunteer mentality, with the council maintaining that firefighters are technically paid employees while the firefighters reported a volunteer mentality, saying department members aren’t in it for the money. Therefore, Trevor Nicklason concluded, a threat of holding back financial benefits has no “teeth” with them.

Nevertheless, workshop participants reached a consensus to recommend a revised draft of the ordinance for approval at the city council’s June 13 meeting.

Updated language

Besides correcting some typos and updating gendered language, like changing “firemen” or “men” to “firepersons” or “personnel,” they agreed on the following changes:

  • Striking references to the fire department’s bylaws, since the department itself (distinguished from the Firepersons’ Relief Association) is part of the city government and does not have its own bylaws.
  • Specifying that appointment, promotion, suspension or removal of fire personnel is subject to approval by the city council.
  • Adding a clause about a youth training program to the qualifications for fire department membership. Council members also suggested verifying the legality of age limits on hiring firefighters.
  • Clarifying the requirement of a physical exam as part of the firefighter hiring process.
  • Adding verbiage about completing training requirements before receiving a fireperson’s rating.
  • Deleting a subsection about grandfathering current members of the department without requiring a probationary period, relevant only to the original passage of the ordinance in 1977. (The ordinance was last amended in 1991-92.)
  • Changed the minimum compensation for attending a fire call to two hours’ pay, but leaving the minimum for medical calls at one hour. Firefighters advised that quarterly attendance reports would be sufficient, instead of monthly as stated in the existing ordinance, since they are paid quarterly anyway. 
  • Changed firepersons’ minimum attendance requirement from 50% of trainings and fire calls to 70% of scheduled drills and 25% of all calls, regardless of whether fire or medical, on the advice of Assistant Chief Josh Winter. They also reinforced the exception for absences excused by the fire chief and tightened up a clause stating that a firefighter “may be removed for cause by council directive.”

There was also discussion about whether to change the department’s designation as a volunteer outfit to “volunteer/paid-on-call,” the fire chief’s duties as a city fire marshal and clarifying whether interference with firefighters’ performance of their duties is a misdemeanor.
They discussed firefighters’ pay rates, which hadn’t changed in several years. According to Brent Nicklason, firefighters are paid $12.50 per hour for call attendance, which hasn’t changed for several years. Skjonsby said they are paid $9.85 per hour for training, an amount that has only been adjusted to keep up with the state minimum wage.

The council and Deputy Clerk Kim Wright asked the fire department to draw up job descriptions for all positions within the department for the council to approve and place in the city’s human resources file.

Wright said copies of the draft ordinance update will be available on request at the city office, and it will have to undergo legal review before it is approved.

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MORE RELATED COVERAGE:
Lacking widespread citizen feedback or a clear direction on what to do, a repeal or revision of the ordinance that passed in 2020 was tabled on May 9.

Robin Fish is a staff reporter at the Park Rapids Enterprise. Contact him at rfish@parkrapidsenterprise.com or 218-252-3053.
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