The Central Valley Fire District Board of Trustees has placed CVFD Chief Ron Lindroth on paid administrative leave pending an investigation, and an EMT with administrative experience from Issaquah, Wash., has been named interim chief of the department.

Nobody contacted by the Belgrade News was willing to elaborate on the nature of the investigation, which is being conducted by Col. Kevin McDonnell, who has no affiliation with Central Valley.

Ty Elliot assumed chairmanship of the CVFD board Nov. 9, the same day the board voted to place Lindroth on leave and formally appoint Greg Tryon as interim chief. Elliot refused to give any details.

“We will be providing additional information at monthly meetings that are posted to the public,” Elliot told the Belgrade News.

More than 50 people attended last week’s meeting, including department personnel and representatives from other fire departments in the valley. About half a dozen members of the firefighters union Local 4939 addressed the board in general terms with concerns about inadequate staffing, poor communication, uncertain paramedic availability, long hours, and high employee stress levels within the department.

Union President Dustin Pitman, a CVFD firefighter, told the board that Lindroth “has failed our organization and community.” When pressed for more details by a reporter, Pitman declined to provide specifics but did say the union members are concerned with Lindroth’s leadership.

It wasn’t the first time Pitman cited concerns before the board this year.

“We had notified the board back in January of our concerns, so it’s been going on since then,” Pitman said. “Our concerns with the chief are primarily (his) leadership.”

At the board’s September meeting, Pitman elaborated a little on the member’s grievances, saying they were concerned about firefighter safety and burnout due to staffing shortages; retention of members, including firefighters and officers; safety of firefighters at the scene of emergencies due to radio failures; and a lack of overall strategic planning and leadership guidance for the direction of the department.

In January, then-Local 4939 President Justin Monroe’s complaint to the board centered on division among department leadership. He asked that administration be held accountable to the leadership principles adopted by the department, and he quoted a verse from Matthew stating the a “house divided against itself will not stand.”

Minutes from the March 2021 meeting indicate that the division Monroe referred to stemmed from differences between Lindroth and then-Deputy Chief Kevin Strickler, whose employment later would be terminated on Sept. 9, 2021.

The March minutes attribute the following statements to then-board Chairman Joe Nelson: “In January, Local 4939 expressed concern over the disharmony in management that was causing problems for the entire department. The Board sees the dedication of both Chief Lindroth and Deputy Chief Strickler to the department. The unity of leadership is so important to any organization, and especially emergency response organizations …

“The Trustees are confident that everyone can and will participate to bring about this change. The Trustees have one person that they supervise, the Chief. If this is not resolved to get everyone to move in the same direction, a third party will need to be brought in … The Trustees do however have confidence that this will not be necessary.”

After a period of months, union representatives evidently did not feel the situation had resolved, as they approached the board again in August. Pitman, who had by then become president of Local 4939, “let the Trustees know of a concern that the Union had regarding a lack of communication from Chief Lindroth to Deputy Chief Strickler regarding the resignation of Captain (Chris) Dalhauser,” the minutes of the meeting state. “When B Shift returned from their four days off, they discovered that Deputy Chief Strickler had not been told by Chief Lindroth that Captain Dalhauser had resigned.”

The minutes reflect further discussion about the importance of opening communication channels outside of board meetings, because communications given directly to the board “become public record.”

The August meeting minutes state, “Chief Lindroth added that he and President Pitman have had a meeting and plan to meet at least monthly to do their best to have conversations to catch things when they are small.”

In response to a question posed to the board at its meeting nearly a month later on Sept. 14 – five days after Deputy Chief Strickler was fired – Nelson declined to answer “what happened,” citing the board’s obligation to protect Strickler’s privacy. Later in the meeting, Lindroth, who attended the meeting remotely because he was ill, said he had met with some of the crews about Strickler’s termination and would meet with another once he was well.

Lindroth said then he was developing a plan to sort out necessary job responsibilities to make sure that “nothing falls through the cracks through this transition period.”

At that meeting, Lindroth said he knew a potential candidate in Colorado who was well-qualified to fill Strickler’s vacant position; he suggested that considering the candidate might make more sense than hiring headhunter Greg Prothman to conduct a lengthy search. (Prothman is the consultant previously used by the department to recruit candidates for CVFD, including Lindroth, who came from Colorado, in 2012. In 2013, the firm also recruited Ted Barkley, just-retired Belgrade city manager, and this year found Belgrade’s new City Manager Neil Cardwell, who has been with the city for about a month.)

CVFD trustees did not take Lindroth’s advice, reporting at the October meeting that the “individual that Chief Lindroth recommended for the interim Deputy Chief position will not be offered that position.”

In September, Lindroth also addressed some of the expressed concerns about department leadership, acknowledging that CVFD “has struggled with having sufficient middle management to carry the load and that still exists today.” Lindroth said there should be nine captains to cover each fire station, but that CVFD had only three captains and two lieutenants at that time, according to the minutes.

In response to a question from Fire Marshal Bruce Hennequin, board Chairman Joe Nelson stated at the October meeting that during the 9½ years Lindroth has been with CVFD, 13 members have left the department and 23 full-time positions were added.

Also during the October meeting, it was reported that Lindroth – who still had not recovered from his illness – would remain at home on sick leave and work remotely on administrative duties for up to 60 days “or until the investigation is complete.”

Hennequin then was appointed acting fire chief, but his last day with CVFD was Nov. 11. At the Nov. 9 meeting, he handed the proverbial baton to the new interim chief, telling union members, “I don’t think I could leave you in better hands.”

Deb Bloom, CVFD office manager, said Hennequin resigned because he was moving out of state.

The board reported in October that it had hired Prothman Consulting to conduct a search for an interim, temporary deputy chief, and that McDonnell would be conducting the third-party investigation.

Though Prothman’s services were initially sought to recruit Strickler’s replacement, the board instead chose to seek an interim chief and place Lindroth on leave, Elliot said.

Lindroth told the Belgrade News this week that he did not wish to speak about the shakeup. He described the upheaval as “pretty much just an issue between the union and the board” and said he is “not privy to all the details.”

Asked if he would comment about Strickler’s termination, he said it would be premature for him to do so.

“I don’t want to make any challenges for heartaches for anybody,” he said.

A year ago, in November 2020, Lindroth’s performance report was discussed in executive session by the CVFD board, concluding, “ … it was determined that Chief Lindroth’s performance was excellent.”

Central Valley Fire District serves 36,000 citizens residing in a 200-square-mile area, including the city of Belgrade, River Rock, Valley Center, Four Corners, Springhill, Reese Creek and Dry Creek.