Oak Grove Mayor Jim Iund on Tuesday angrily denounced accusations by city firefighters that indecision and delay by superiors might have cost an elderly man his life in a house fire on March 5.
"These people are hypocrites and liars, and I hope you don't print that," said Iund, a charter member of the fire department who served 18 years. "You're talking about a small group of people who want to make trouble."
Firefighters are now charging that Fire Chief Tony Hennemann repeatedly bypassed the most qualified candidates for leadership positions. Some said Hennemann won't promote any candidate he believes could be a threat to his authority.
The most-cited example is Oak Grove firefighter Jim Rogers, who has a résumé as long as a firehose, teaching fire safety and assisting other departments throughout the state. Rogers has repeatedly been shunned when seeking promotions within his own department.
"I was told I didn't attend enough pancake breakfasts," Rogers said Tuesday.
The City Council on Monday discussed hiring someone independent of the fire department -- possibly a retired fire chief from the south metro area -- to investigate the fire that claimed the life of James Verdi Blackford, 86.
But current and former Oak Grove firefighters told the Star Tribune that the turmoil dividing the department began years ago.
Hennemann, who reports to the council, declined to comment this week, saying it would not be appropriate to talk with an investigation pending. But early this month, he defended his hiring practices, saying that a candidate's "personality has to fit the position."
"It's more than strictly how many classes you've taken in school," he said, when told that there appear to be cases where winning candidates did not meet an application's minimum criteria. "Every position, you go over experience and qualifications, but sometimes there's more to it than that."
As for allegations that the most qualified candidates are being bypassed, Iund said Tuesday: "I don't know that.''
Ron Sivigny, a former City Council member, said he quit the on-call volunteer department two years ago when "better trained people weren't getting promoted because the chief couldn't get along with them."
He is one of nine current or former Oak Grove firefighters interviewed who asked why Rogers, a 22-year department veteran, has repeatedly been passed over.
"This has divided the department," Sivigny said of Rogers and other qualified candidates who were bypassed. "If this was to happen again, would we have the same kind of tragedy?"
An outside investigation would likely look at lingering questions about the response to the March 5 fire.
At a City Hall meeting on April 14, firefighter Jon Faanes asked why it took 30 minutes to go in and search for Blackford during that fire. He asked why the department held no critique of the fire and why a Critical Incident Stress Debriefing -- standard procedure when dealing with fatalities -- was not offered to firefighters.
The March 5 fire was started by a child playing with a charcoal-grill lighter, according to the state fire marshal. Blackford, who was in an upstairs bedroom, far from the fire's origin, died of smoke inhalation.
Hennemann announced he will retire in January, when he completes his 25th year with the department, the last eight as chief. At least one council member, Brad LeTourneau, wants to hire a public safety director to oversee the fire department, rather than hire a new chief. But the council hasn't decided how it will replace Hennemann.
Paul Levy • 612-673-4419