Gene Wright said he will spend the next six months working to reinvigorate the Clinton Fire Department membership as chief.
“My goal is to get the membership of the department ready for the future,” Wright said. “I’m here to help our neighbors.”
Wright, the town of Beloit fire chief, will serve as interim chief for the Clinton Fire Department after a joint board finalized the decision Tuesday night.
Wright said he will fulfill all of his duties for the town of Beloit but contribute about 20 hours each week to the Clinton department.
The appointment was approved Tuesday night by the Clinton Fire Protection District Board, the Clinton Village Board, the Clinton Town Board and the Bradford Town Board.
Members from the community were not allowed to speak at the meeting, but about 80 district residents attended.
“The time for debate is over,” Clinton Village Police Chief David Hooker told The Gazette before the meeting. “Our feelings are, we know there’s a problem, we’re acknowledging there’s a problem,” and the intention Tuesday night was to “take care of this problem.”
The Clinton Fire Department has been without a permanent chief since November. In the past several months, the department has lost about one-quarter of its staff, Hooker said.
The fire district board has also lost several members. The village of Clinton is without three of its four appointed board representatives.
Two of those fire board members resigned, but at least one member was informed that he “was no longer appointed,” Hooker said. That member resigned Tuesday afternoon.
Jeff London became interim fire chief after the longtime Clinton Fire Department Chief John Rindfleisch resigned in November. London said he was “removed” from his position as interim chief several weeks ago. He resigned from the department a few days later.
A Jan. 30 memo by attorneys for the municipalities and the fire district board gives the board’s version of troubles between the department and the board.
London said information in the memo is correct, but he said it lacks the department’s input.
London said he felt the department wasn’t being listened to in the past few months by the fire district board or the town boards.
“No matter what we did, we were shut down on asking questions,” London said.
London said the working relationship used to be “very, very good” between the fire department and the board and that Rindfleisch “was the reason for a lot of that.”
The recent lack of communication with the fire district board was one of the reasons London retired from the department after 36 years of service, he said.
“I was doing everything I could within my authority and knowledge to try and hold everything together,” London said. “It just got to the point to where I was fighting an uphill battle.”
After the meeting, Wright said his first step will be to sit down with the members of the department to “figure out where we’re at.”
“I’m here to assist,” Wright said. “We’re not taking over. We’re here to make the community better.”
Wright said he is “a clean slate type of person” and that he would entertain the idea of hiring back members of the fire department who have resigned in the past few months.
“This takes a lot of dedication, and we need it here,” Wright said. “The biggest thing is the lack of policies at the board level, the lack of a long-term direction.”
London said hiring a chief from outside the department to solve the current dilemma is “unfortunate” when there are already “capable people in the department to do that.”
But London said he has faith in Wright.
“I know it’s something that he can do, and it can be corrected,” London said. “But he has to have the support from the district board and the municipal boards. If he doesn’t have that support, then nothing is going to change.”