Fire chief retires again

Stokes, first ousted in Feb. under Arundel pact, is praised

July 04, 2008|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,Sun Reporter

For the second time in six months, Chief David L. Stokes is retiring from the Anne Arundel Fire Department.

Stokes, a 29-year veteran appointed by County Executive John R. Leopold in late 2006, said yesterday that he would step down from his post this fall. One of his top deputies, J. Robert Ray, has been picked to assume control.

Stokes leaves the department after forging strong bonds with the union and volunteer force, and on the heels of a second consecutive budget surplus that for the first time reined in overtime spending, a problem that was blamed for causing the ouster of at least his past two predecessors.

County Council members say that the administration should have taken steps to encourage him to stay.

Stokes, 51, actually retired earlier this year, essentially forced out under a contract he signed five years ago when he was anticipating a retirement in 2008. His appointment as chief in late 2006 didn't alter the terms of that agreement.

So with little fanfare, after he walked out the door in February; plaques showing him as chief were even taken down in county fire buildings.

Leopold, a Republican, invited him back a month later, but this time, he was required to work under a pension system for re-hired retirees in which $1 of every $2 he earned went into a pension fund. The County Council tried to alter the policy but was blocked by Leopold's administration, council members say.

"Personally, the county letting Chief Stokes go is a huge mistake," said Councilman Ronald C. Dillon Jr., a Republican. "He had the respect of the folks that surround him, the respect of the volunteers, the respect of the citizens, and was probably in my six years on the council the best chief we've had."

Dennis Callahan, the county's chief administrative officer, said that the pension policy was "well-established" and that many other department heads work under the same agreement, including Callahan himself.

For Stokes, the opportunity to retire and draw that pension while accepting another job was too good to pass up.

At a news conference yesterday in front of department headquarters in Millersville, Stokes was praised for bringing agency spending under control. He included the union in his decision-making, reached out to the county's significant contingent of volunteer firefighters, and oversaw the implementation of a fourth shift to meet staffing demands.

Stokes said he was also proud of his efforts to more closely integrate paramedics into fire operations, which he said stemmed a tide of paramedics leaving for other agencies. He said the agency hadn't lost a paramedic to another county in a year.

"This is a tough job, but it's a fun job," Stokes said, turning to Ray: "You have great people, and I'm sure you'll do a great job."

Council Chairwoman Cathleen M. Vitale, a Republican whose husband is a lieutenant in the Fire Department, said the agency has "enjoyed a relationship of mutual respect and admiration, on and off the job, that I put squarely at the feet of Chief Stokes."

Ray, an Arnold resident, joined the department in 1977 and said it has been a "dream" to lead the agency, which consists of 1,700 career and volunteer firefighters and civilian personnel, and carries a $100 million budget.

He is in charge of logistics for the department, and previously served as a county department head when he was appointed to lead the Department of Inspections and Permits in 2002.

"I feel like a very lucky guy at this point," said Ray, 52. "I couldn't be taking over a department in better shape than Chief Stokes has left it."

Fire union president Craig Oldershaw praised Stokes' leadership, though he said Ray would have to address staffing shortages. He said the department is falling below national safety standards for the number of personnel who respond on ladder trucks.

He said a change from four battalions to three larger ones - eliminating the one that responded to calls in the western part of the county - has left junior officers handling many emergency situations.

Oldershaw said the department's $300,000 overtime savings and overall $2 million budget surplus was commendable but might be better spent on beefing up staff.

"It's a systemic problem, and we've made do with what we had," Oldershaw said.

Meanwhile, Dillon said he might try to revive an effort to revamp the pension system now that Stokes would not find himself in the middle of any debate. He said he abandoned the idea because he "did not want to create an environment that was hostile to the chief."

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