The struggle for control of Frenchtown Rural Fire

As the Black Cat Fire surged over Evaro Hill Aug. 17, 2007, Scott Waldron hopped out of his Dodge Durango and, defying state officials, intrepidly lit a series of backburns on the unconsumed hillside that either saved or unnecessarily imperiled the nearby community of Frenchtown. Which one depends entirely on who’s telling the story.

Whatever the case, the newspaper-immortalized, maverick exploits of the Frenchtown Rural fire chief—long embattled for his advocacy of new taxes and, most recently, development impact fees—made Waldron seem politically bulletproof for at least a time. Two members of the fiscally conservative opposition, intent on reining in the department leader, say they almost decided not to run in the May 2008 board election because of Waldron’s perceived popularity.

They ran anyway and won control of the board. Opposition candidates Glenn Green (755 votes) and Ray Winn (701) defeated Dee Woods (432) and Harry Kenck (392) to join Mitchell Hicks, an ally, on the five-member panel.

Green and Winn say the coup began with a drive to freeze taxes, but also to topple the district’s policy of cooperation with the county planning process, so unpopular in Frenchtown.

“We were elected by the largest turnout the district’s ever had,” Green says. “The people that live in [Frenchtown] are real supportive. People outside of the area, who don’t have to deal with the Fire Department—they don’t understand.”

Soon after taking control, the new majority moved on dousing an inherited proposal to adopt new impact fees for firefighting services in the wildland-urban interface. The board then restricted out-of-district response on wildfires to within a 300-mile radius of Frenchtown—again as promised. Finally, the trio voted on July 14 to remove the department from county subdivision review.

That move pulled the long-held debate over enforcing sprinkler system requirements—one of Waldron’s pet causes—up by the roots. It also threw Missoula County for a bit of a spin. County officials, particularly those connected to the planning process, expressed clear disapproval, but lacked the authority to reverse the decision.

But for Waldron, the micromanaging and reportedly antagonizing nature of the board’s subjugation of his authority created a hostile work environment. On July 23, the chief began a sudden and extended leave of absence, retained counsel and filed a complaint against the fire board for breach of contract.

The Independent later learned that the board, several members of which criticized Waldron for taking leave during fire season, officially terminated the chief on Sept. 8 (see “Fire board fires Waldron,” page 7). The subdivision review vote, though integral to the backstory, is not directly a part of Waldron’s complaint.

According to Green and Winn, district policy on subdivision review constituted the largest of their three main campaign promises. The issue’s ideological rub rests between relative libertarianism in the state building codes and additional county regulations that they characterize as draconian and out-of-bounds. As far as the whole issue of providing services for homes in the wildland-urban interface, the new board members feel the prairie castle garrisons should fend for themselves, as off-the-grid recluses have done for decades.

“We told voters, ‘If you don’t believe this then don’t vote for us,’” Winn says. “Somehow we need to get back to this personal responsibility thing, because we can’t be all things to all people.”

Later, Missoula County hired Waldron to fulfill district staff’s previous role in making sure under-construction development carried out the terms of their plat approval—sprinkler systems or whatever else. County officials insist the move was functional, and not a political power play.

“What he is doing for us is a short-term thing to get us through the construction season,” says head county planner Roger Millar, who adds that numerous approved developments already awaited the final step in subdivision review when the board voted July 14. “We didn’t want to hang them up while two governments try and figure this thing out.”

Logistically, the two sides differ over whether the county or fire district has the authority to use state building code enforcement entitlements to hammer on local subdivision code. Of course, the greater question of whether that subdivision code should exist—or apply to Frenchtown—is also entirely the point.

“I think where the loss is, is in public safety,” says Kenck, who lost to Glenn and Winn in the past election. He agrees with many other critics of the voting majority that the board’s decisions have encroached upon Waldron’s authority to act in the interest of fire prevention. “It’s my opinion that Hicks, Glenn and Winn are playing fast and loose with their powers.”

The issue clearly matters to the residents of Frenchtown, who have flooded fire board chambers in what, since the May election, has become a weekly mudslinging ritual. Amid this climate and following a public disagreement with the newly elected chair, Hicks, longtime board member Tom Mahlum resigned last month.

Now, both sides of the coin anticipate county commissioners will give fourth-place finisher Kenck the nod to replace Mahlum, and that’s become another bone of contention. Consider-ing the circumstances, some board members consider the county’s role in selecting the successor inappropriate.

Waldron’s camp recently welcomed the official support of fire district volunteers, who are momentarily shifting their mission from community outreach to politics. Mainly they want to remind the voters of everything Waldron has done for the district.

“I feel like the public, at the recent vote, forgot about that,” volunteer Martin Horn says. “People will only see the light when their tax bills don’t go down or when something really bad happens.”

Asked about the political fallout of a major disaster, the ensuing calls for government aid and the sprouting of FEMA trailers along the Frenchtown landscape, Winn just laughs. “Now you’re going to get me started on that?”
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