Our fire chief deserved better

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By Doug Bell

Evergreen’s fire chief was essentially fired last spring, and taxpaying residents of the Evergreen Fire Protection District still don’t know why.
Garry DeJong became the paid chief of Evergreen Fire/Rescue in October 2007, coolly stepping into a situation that involved more than just a little political heat. At that time, the district was in turmoil: Discontent was rampant among the volunteers, two members of the district board were about to be recalled in that November’s election, and the Courier’s Opinion page regularly carried incendiary missives from various players in the drawn-out drama.
That’s not the kind of backdrop that would make a fire chief believe he had a lot of job security, or that he should make long-term commitments to his new community.
But DeJong clearly was committed to Evergreen from day one. He bought a home here. He quickly enrolled in and then graduated from the chamber’s Leadership Evergreen program. And he was a fixture at every local event from the Big Chili Cook-off to town hall meetings to the Rodeo Parade.
In fact, DeJong appeared to be everything that Evergreen wanted in its fire chief: a visible leader who became involved in the community and was heavily invested in Evergreen’s future.
But apparently, outside of public view, elements on the EFPD board decided that Garry DeJong had to go. DeJong and board member Charles Simons told the Courier that the chief was informed by some board members — as far back as March — that his contract would not be renewed this fall.  
Now, veteran observers of democracy in action might feel compelled to ask how public policy — in this case, dismissal of a fire chief — could be made without a public vote of the EFPD board. And since that could be a violation of Colorado’s open meetings law, some lawyerly types definitely will be looking into it.
But for now it’s important to make a different point very clear: Garry DeJong deserved a hell of a lot better than this.
EFPD board member Chick Dykeman, who joined the board in 2007 amid the discord and also helped bring much-needed stability to the district, has nothing but praise for DeJong’s tenure as chief.
Dykeman said the district’s budget is in excellent shape and has a healthy reserve, thanks to DeJong’s careful management. He also pointed out that the chief worked tirelessly to improve ISO scores so that district property owners would pay lower insurance premiums.
DeJong also represented Evergreen in state and regional firefighting organizations, and, in a district without a public information officer, he spent time fielding calls from the media, including, of course, the Canyon Courier.
Finally, DeJong was not just an administrator. He rode on numerous rescues and brought along his extensive paramedic and firefighting experience as a former division chief with the Albuquerque Fire Department.
Yet despite his public service and his professional accomplishments, DeJong is being forced to leave Evergreen and will become the fire chief in Lewiston, Idaho.
The voters deserve to know why. And they also deserve to know — as the open meetings law clearly sets out — which board members supported the chief and which wanted him gone.  
EFPD board president George Kling has not responded to questions about why DeJong is leaving. This space is available next week for any answers he’d like to provide.

Doug Bell is the editor of the Courier.