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JANESVILLE

After he resigns his post in Janesville in August, Janesville Fire Chief Ernie Rhodes will become chief of the Clayton Fire Department in Clayton, Missouri.

According to an announcement this week by the city of Clayton, Rhodes on Aug. 23 will take the helm of the 42-member, suburban St. Louis fire department after he was appointed chief there following a national search.

Rhodes announced his resignation on Monday in a letter to Janesville City Manager Mark Freitag, but the chief did not indicate in the letter why he was resigning.

In a set of announcements by Freitag and the city Monday afternoon, the city’s administration made no mention of Rhodes’ hire in Missouri, although Rhodes and the city said Rhodes’ last day would be Aug. 18.

The Janesville Firefighters Local 580, the union that represents Janesville Fire Department employees, confirmed Tuesday that Rhodes is leaving the department for a new job in Missouri.

However, union president Jason Daskam said union members only learned Rhodes had taken a new job after members saw a headline about his appointment on the website of a Missouri newspaper.

“The only thing that he told us via an email to the department was that he was resigning due to health concerns,” Daskam said. “And then two hours later, one of my members found an article from Clayton, Missouri, about how they just hired Ernie Rhodes as their next (fire) chief.”

Daskam said the union is “disappointed” to lose Rhodes. The city gave Rhodes kudos Monday for his leadership of public safety under the city’s COVID-19 task force. Daskam said Rhodes “has done a lot of good for the fire department and the city of Janesville.”

Daskam indicated that Rhodes’ family had continued to reside in suburban St. Louis, where Rhodes had worked as a fire department administrator prior to taking a job as Janesville and Milton’s fire chief in 2019.

“I’m sorry to see him leave. I just wish that he was a little bit more up front about looking at other positions elsewhere. But I wish him all the luck in the world. And he’ll be back in his home area, where I think he truly wanted to be,” Daskam said.

The Janesville Police and Fire Commission was set Tuesday afternoon to discuss next steps in light of Rhodes’ pending departure, including the possibility of naming Janesville Deputy Fire Chief Jim Ponkauskas as interim fire chief as recommended by Freitag. On Tuesday, the meeting was canceled and reset for next week, according to a city memo.

City human resources officials said the committee couldn’t reach a quorum Tuesday.

It’s not clear whether or when the city might launch a search for a new chief, but it’ll be the third time in a six-year span in which Janesville has hired a new fire chief.

Daskam said the union hopes the city can hire a fire chief who would stay on board longer than a few years.

“The fire department has gone through a lot of yo-yoing the past six years with two chiefs that have come in and stayed for a couple years each and then left. I think that the fire department and the city of Janesville and the citizens of Janesville deserve a little bit more stability in that front office,” he said.

Daskam said he believes Ponkauskas, a longtime member of the fire department, would “bring some stability to the department.”

“And I think that there’s some other individuals on the department that can move up into deputy roles which will bring even a little bit more stability to the department. I think that’s the big thing that that I see and what the union body sees as our number one focus for the future. Stability,” Daskam said.

Daskam said he understands whoever is named as interim chief likely will be tapped to be Milton’s fire chief, too. Janesville and Milton’s fire departments operate under a partnership that has put Janesville’s fire chief at the helm of Milton’s fire department since 2017.

That partnership is set to expire at the end of this year. Meanwhile, talks are ongoing to renegotiate contracts to boost the amount rural townships in northern Rock County, such as the towns of Janesville, Harmony and Milton, would be required to pay the cities of Janesville and Milton for fire services they provide the towns.

The town of Milton is openly discussing fracturing off of its joint affiliation with the Milton fire department and instead joining fire coverage forces with Edgerton’s part-time, volunteer fire department.

Rhodes has not spoken with The Gazette about his resignation.

Daskam said that in decisions on how to craft a new set of multijurisdictional fire protection partnerships, the biggest turmoil fire departments face is a dwindling supply of new fire recruits who will help handle a growing number of calls for service.

Daskam said the department’s challenges are similar to what other municipalities are going through with a dwindling number of firefighter applicants. He said he doesn’t think Rhodes’ departure is directly tied to challenges the Janesville faces in striking renewed partnerships next year with Milton and the towns.

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