West Allis police, fire chiefs retire

Published on: 2/26/2013

West Allis - As of Friday, the city will not have a police chief or a fire chief.

Only last week, Fire Chief Steven Hook announced his plans to retire Feb. 28.

Over at the Police Department, Charles Padgett has been interim police chief since the retirement of Michael Jungbluth at the end of 2012. The Police and Fire Commission thought it had the police chief job nailed down with the appointment of Rick Balistrieri two weeks ago. But last week, he suddenly withdrew his acceptance of the job after he didn't get unanimous commission approval.

Joint position

Because the city will soon have no chiefs, the Police and Fire Commission will meet with the Common Council on whether to combine those positions into one director of public safety.

Some aldermen expressed the view that the Fire Department has too many chiefs, so the Common Council asked to discuss the possibility of a combined police and fire public safety director, said Joseph Kempen, Police and Fire Commission president. At a combined meeting that will likely take place next week, commissioners and aldermen will discuss the pros and cons of a joint position and what it would look like.

Some other Wisconsin communities have public safety directors, Kempen said. But he is unaware of any that have full time fire departments as West Allis has, he said. Normally they have paid-on-call fire departments or a mixture of full time, paid-on-call and volunteer firefighters, he said.

Even so, he supported the consensus on the commission to look for any savings possible.

"Communities are looking at how to deploy their scarce resources," he said. "We need to look at it."

One of the main things to ensure, however, is that adding another layer of administration will add substantial benefit, he said.

Short notice

At its meeting last week, the Police and Fire Commission named Deputy Fire Chief of Operations Gary Streicher to serve as interim fire chief.

In announcing his retirement, Hook acknowledged that Feb. 28 seems like short notice.

"I apologize for the seemingly short notice, but I've been working toward this for quite some time," he wrote in a letter announcing his retirement. "I had the opportunity to share my intentions a short time ago with Commissioner Kempen, Mayor Devine and Paul Ziehler (city administrator)."

But some issues arose and he was asked to delay his actual announcement, he wrote.

Hook is a 32-year veteran of the West Allis Fire Department, serving the last 15 years as its chief.

"It has truly been an honor and a privilege to have served as your fire chief," he wrote.

Offer declined

In a similar vein, Balistrieri was looking forward to serving the city as its new police chief. He had already served the Police Department for many years before retiring as a deputy chief in 2011.

"I was extremely honored and proud," to have been the commission's choice, he wrote in a letter to the city explaining why he withdrew his acceptance of the job.

"Only after accepting the offer, I became aware of the sharply divided commission vote during the open session," he wrote.

Balistrieri found the 3-2 split commission vote unsettling.

"I was troubled that the vote, taken during the open session, was not unanimous as had occurred in the past," he wrote. "I can qualify this by stating I had experienced three chief processes during my tenure with the Police Department; I understand that in the past the commission vigorously debated in closed session but always voted unanimously in support during the open session."

In his view, the split vote weakened his authority.

"No chief should undertake the job without a unanimous decision … without full board support. In essence, just 60 percent of the commission vote supported me. How could any chief possibly stand in front of their whole agency with the support of just 60 percent of the appointing board?" he asked.

No votes

Commission president Kempen, who cast one of the two "no" votes, said he didn't see it as a vote of no confidence at all.

"It wasn't a vote against Balistrieri," he said. "I have absolutely nothing against him."

The race for chief was neck and neck between Balistrieri and Padgett, the interim chief, and Kempen said he happened to like Padgett better. Kempen said that seemed to him to be the position of fellow commissioner Don Hehmer who cast the other "no" vote, although Hehmer could not be reached for comment.

Kempen added that the fact that Balistrieri would continue to receive a deputy chief's pension while serving as chief did not play a role in his vote.