Fire chief fails in bid to keep job

April 24, 2004 | In The News, Sean Breen, Tim Herman

Without explanation, board votes for ouster; Chief’s lawyer claims open meetings violation

By Kate Alexander, American-Statesman Staff
Austin American-Statesman

Outside the tiny trailer that houses the board of Emergency Services District No. 11, the dense humidity Friday night portended a coming thunder-storm. Inside, the tension was no less dense as Travis County Fire and Rescue Chief Mike Herman futilely fought for his job, despite the vocal support of high-level public safety officials from the Austin Fire Department and Austin/Travis County Emergency Medical Services. And the aftermath of the boards vote not to reinstate Herman is likely to be fierce. Herman’s lawyer, Sean Breen, said immediately after the meeting that the decision violated the Texas Open Meetings Act and was invalid.Before a crowd of about 30 people packed into the trailer, the five commissioners came out of a closed session and, without explanation, rejected by a 3-2 vote a motion to place Herman on 30 days probation. That left standing the Monday night decision to accept Hermans resignation and end his five-year contract. Herman, however, said he did not resign.

“In no way, shape or form has this man resigned,” Breen said. “This is a complete nullity, a nullity that was done in secret, without sunlight.”

Herman said earlier this week that he was told he had failed to implement two procedures, involving protective equipment and chain of command, that were required by his contract. He said he was given the choice of termination or resignation.

Herman had invoked his right under the state open meetings law to have his personnel situation discussed in public. In most instances, state law permits public bodies to consider personnel issues in closed session.

The emergency district board, however, disregarded Herman’s request and convened a closed session for 35 minutes after hearing public comment. The commissioners returned to reject Commissioner Bruce Conover’s motion for probation, offering no explanation.

“No comment,” said President John Foradory, glancing up at the district’s lawyer for guidance as many in the crowd asked for an explanation. Three of the commissioners quickly left as the meeting was adjourned.

“All I can say is, I am very disappointed,” Conover said. Many in the crowd uttered the same sentiment.

“This is what I pay taxes for?” Wayne Yelderman said immediately after the meeting was adjourned. “This is not gonna fly. . . . Both sides deserve an answer on this thing. All they did tonight was create a rift in the community.”

Herman was hired a year ago to bring the department up to a professional level equal to others in Travis County, according to the six-month performance review in which he received a satisfactory rating. He had won the respect of many professional emergency providers in Austin who had long had problems dealing with the southeastern Travis County department.

Herman had no comment after the meeting.

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