Voters in the O’Fallon Fire Protection District will have a decision to make in the April 7 election that could put a former chief in a new role.
With one Board of Directors position on the ballot, two challengers, former O’Fallon FPD fire chief Mike Ballmann and O’Fallon resident Arnie Dienoff, have stepped forward to try and wrest the position away from the current incumbent, William Laughlin.
Ballmann started his career with the fire district in 1973 as a volunteer firefighter. He became a career firefighter in 1988, and rose to fire chief in 2000. He said he feels the current administration is more concerned with “taking care” of the employees working for the district than the citizens.
“My biggest concern is that I’d like to see the fire district get back to being more concerned about citizens, and what the citizens’ needs are, compared to everything (being) about employees,” Ballmann said.
Dienoff said he feels the board needs to be returned to the citizens as well. He cited the firefighters’ pay and medical benefits as an example of the administration putting the employees first.
“I think that taxpayers need to come first, then the employees, then public safety equipment,” Dienoff said.
Ballmann, along with then assistant fire chief Randy Sanders, was placed on administrative leave in April 2014. Both were given a window of time within which they could either accept a severance package or be terminated. Ballmann chose to retire during that window.
He said he has maintained contact with employees in the district and that he has stayed in the loop during his absence.
“We have great employees. I worked with them for years and years, and I know the guys and gals are very, very good,” Ballmann said.
Currently, Ballmann and Sanders are involved in legal action against the district, pertaining to their contracts making them eligible for severance pay if they were to be terminated. The pair had signed the contracts in 2004, but were informed in 2013 that those contracts had been terminated.
“Their opinion was that the contract was not a good contract,” Ballmann said.
Laughlin said Ballmann’s decision to run for the board position is “absurd.”
“Every taxpayer has the right to run for any office within their city, their district, whatever,” Laughlin said. “But I think it is absurd to run for a seat to a board that you currently have a lawsuit against.”
Laughlin, who is seeking his second term as a board director, said that currently “things couldn’t be better” at the district. Some of the administrative changes made within the last year have put the district in a positive place, according to Laughlin.
“We are moving this district – we have moved this district – in a different direction and things couldn’t be better,” Laughlin said. “Spirits are high around here now. Everybody is happy. Everybody knows what their job titles are now. Before, we were top heavy, we had too many people, people didn’t even know what some of their jobs were. Everything is great, and I would just hate to see it go back in that direction.”
Whether voters agree with Ballmann and Dienoff that change is needed or with Laughlin that everything in the fire district “couldn’t be better” will be decided April 7 at the polls.