Ruppersberger, Thomason air spat Ex-fire chief's exit subject of conflict

July 19, 1996|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County's recently departed fire chief traded accusations with the county executive yesterday, each blaming the other for events leading to the chief's forced resignation.

Allen A. Thomason, the former San Diego assistant fire chief who served just 11 months in the county, said constant interference from top Ruppersberger administration officials led him to search for another job -- which led to his May 28 resignation.

County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III and his top aides "are not allowing department heads to run their own departments," Thomason said, citing interference in job assignments and other issues.

But the executive, in a separate interview, painted a very different picture -- one of a fire chief who needed help but was more interested in small issues than large ones.

"I assigned key people on my staff to work with him," Ruppersberger said. He said he closely manages some departments if he believes they need it, because he is responsible to the voters.

Admittedly "a little bitter," Thomason said promises of autonomy were violated during the last six months of his tenure. Finally, he decided "it was time to get out of Dodge," and applied for Prince George's County's top fire job.

Ruppersberger's discovery that Thomason was looking elsewhere for work badly damaged their relationship, both agree, and quickly led to the resignation, which was accompanied by a $28,000 severance payment. Thomason's annual salary as Baltimore County fire chief was $91,522.

Ruppersberger, who values loyalty highly, said he was hurt that the chief never told him about looking for another job.

Ruppersberger picked retired Chief Paul H. Reincke to replace Thomason.

At the time of his resignation, Thomason gave little hint of internal conflicts. Asked whether his department was being controlled too closely by Ruppersberger, he declined to comment.

Now, Thomason said, their agreement not to speak ill of each other in public has proven a false assurance. He referred to Ruppersberger's comments about the chief's absences from the county, and criticism of budget decisions.

Thomason said decisions on minor issues such as which fire officer would sit on a county government purchasing committee, or the transfer of a battalion chief, were dictated by top Ruppersberger aide Michael H. Davis.

"I was always kept out of the loop. I was never made a member of the management team," Thomason said.

For example, he said, Ruppersberger and Davis denied his request for a $300,000 budget supplement when the January blizzard triggered a deficit -- and reversed his attempt to save the money by cutting fire crew staffing.

Ruppersberger said he wanted no cuts in public services, and the department instead moved support officers to fire stations to cut overtime costs.

Thomason also charged that he was barred from attending labor negotiations with the firefighters union.

Union President Kevin B. O'Connor, who led protests over the lack of pay raises this year, said it was "very strange" that no Fire Department officials participated in the talks. "The format was designed not to produce results," he said.

Ruppersberger denied that, too. "Even I stay out of labor negotiations," he said. "Department heads don't get involved."

Ruppersberger's special assistant Robert J. Barrett also disputed the meddling charge. Davis is out of town on vacation.

"We were there to assist," Barrett said about himself and Davis. He said their assistance was not intrusive, and the chief was always offered other options if he disliked their suggestions.

Thomason acknowledged being out of his office nearly a quarter of the time over the 11 months, but said all his trips, personal and professional, were cleared in advance with the executive office. Once, during the January blizzard, he was stranded in Chicago for three days.

Thomason recently withdrew from contention for the Prince George's County job. A. D. Bell Sr., a veteran Atlanta deputy fire chief and former Georgia state fire marshal, was hired for that job.

Thomason and his wife are living in Hanover, Pa., where he planned to retire, with her daughter's family.

"I didn't move 3,000 miles to go through this," he said.

Pub Date: 7/19/96

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