Anne Arundel executive ousts county's fire chief

Owens pressures Simonds to quit amid criticism over management, overtime tab

March 22, 2004|By Ryan Davis and Julie Bykowicz | Ryan Davis and Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens has forced out Roger C. Simonds as fire chief, after months of criticism of his management practices and his department's soaring overtime tab.

Owens asked Simonds to resign in a meeting Friday, according to several county officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The move came days after Simonds wrote to an international accreditation agency stating that his department was too unstable and beset by financial troubles to renew its status.

The letter was the most recent instance in which some county officials believed that Simonds had spoken out of turn.

"I'm more surprised it's taken this long. ... It just seemed like one misstep after another," said County Council Chairman C. Edward Middlebrooks. "Just from a public perception, it seemed like the chief thought he was above it all. It seemed like he thought he answered to nobody."

Owens lured Simonds out of retirement in April 1999 to serve as the county's fire chief, but tensions between the two grew after she appointed a task force to examine why the department spent millions more in overtime last year than other Baltimore-area fire departments, following a report in The Sun.

Simonds also used overtime money to complete an unauthorized warehouse renovation and created positions not listed in the county budget, The Sun reported.

Simonds' departure ends a career in the department that spanned more than three decades and included establishing Anne Arundel County's emergency services system.

Effective April 1, the county's health officer, Frances B. Phillips, will serve as interim chief of the 600-firefighter department while the county searches for a replacement, county spokeswoman Jody Couser said.

It was unclear yesterday whether Simonds, 57, would continue as chief until then. He will be credited with the five years of service needed to receive a chief's pension, said Mark Atkisson, the county's personnel officer.

Owens declined through her spokeswoman to comment. Simonds could not be reached yesterday for comment.

`Rob Peter to pay Paul'

In recent months, Simonds has become increasingly vocal about his frustrations with the department's funding.

At a Nov. 13 task force meeting, he said, "I've been here for 34 years, and we continually rob Peter to pay Paul."

A week later, the chief publicly proposed adding as many as 180 firefighters -- a $10.5 million plan that he apparently had not discussed with Owens.

After a Dec. 18 task force meeting, he approached a Sun reporter and said that Owens' decision to make Dec. 26 a county holiday would cost his department about $200,000.

"It just seemed like maybe the communication wasn't there between Chief Simonds and the county executive," said County Council Vice Chairman Ronald C. Dillon Jr., a member of the task force.

There were times when it appeared that Simonds was on the brink of dismissal, Dillon said, but Owens publicly stood by him.

"Having Roger as my chief is my privilege and honor," she said in August as she put together the task force. Through her aides, Owens repeatedly asserted that she had no plans to fire Simonds.

Because of Owens' steadfast support of the chief, some officials said yesterday that they were surprised Simonds had been forced out.

"It shocks me ... especially because she was so adamant that she stood by Roger," said County Councilwoman Cathleen M. Vitale, whose husband is a fire lieutenant.

`He was truthful'

Vitale also said she doesn't understand the move because she believes that Simonds has been loyal to Owens and good at communicating with the executive.

"He was truthful with an accreditation department and seems to have lost his job over it," Vitale said yesterday. "That really disturbs me."

In the March 11 letter to the Commission on Fire Accreditation International, Simonds wrote that five years ago the department was "very stable" and provided "an outstanding level of service."

"Our situation has since changed," he wrote.

A Fire Department spokesman said Friday that fire officials had been too busy assembling next year's budget and providing information to Owens' task force to prepare a solid reaccreditation report. The voluntary accreditation, which is renewed every five years, is a mark of prestige that has been obtained by fewer than 100 fire departments worldwide.

Simonds sent a copy of his March 11 letter to Owens and arrived Friday for a scheduled meeting to discuss the task force's recommendations, which include hiring dozens of additional firefighters and overhauling department operations.

At that time, Owens asked for Simonds' resignation, several sources said.

In 1998, Owens was elected county executive with strong union support, and she selected Simonds -- a recently retired deputy chief and favorite of the firefighters union -- to head the department.

There were no indications of serious problems between the two until last year when the Fire Department's overtime spending came under the microscope.

Record overtime tab

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