2011 and Earlier / News

Firefighters vent

The overwhelming opinion created by letters written by Leland Township firefighters is that they would prefer to work for another chief.

It’s just as clear from email and other correspondence written by members of the Leland Fire Board that township officials have spent much of the last two months searching out ways to find peace within the department short of letting chief Michael Fandel go.

The letters and pages of email were released to the Leelanau Enterprise through a Freedom of Information Request (FOIA) seeking information to indicate how deeply the department is divided, and how it got that way. Some letters submitted by members of the Leland Township Fire and Rescue Department were signed, but most were anonymous. They were written to the township Fire Board, which has been seeking to calm personnel issues that led to resignations of long-time firefighters including Charlie Stander of Leland, who had been on the force for 55 years. Stander has held a multitude of positions in the department, including chief.
LELAND FIRE CHIEF  Mike Fandel, in white shirt, listens during a special meeting of the Leland Township Board and Township Fire Board last month.LELAND FIRE CHIEF Mike Fandel, in white shirt, listens during a special meeting of the Leland Township Board and Township Fire Board last month.
“Our fire department has never been in this situation before Chief Fandel came aboard. Fandel didn’t have any experience in leadership of a fire department before he came here. He doesn’t have any respect for anyone, duty crew, and other fire departments,” wrote Stander.

Department members submitted seven letters in response to a Fire Board request to bring complaints against Fandel out in the open. A common concern was the amount of hours Fandel spends on the job.

In response, Fandel plans to establish regular office hours as the first step in a plan he wrote to promote respect and accountability within the department over 60 days. The plan stemmed from a recommendation made by Michigan Townships Association Executive Director Larry Merrill, who at the request of the township studied morale problems in the Leland department.

Fandel plans to be present at the fire hall in Leland at specific times and days for 20 hours each week, and to contribute another 10 hours at the station when needed. No mention was made of holding regular hours at the township’s Lake Leelanau station.

“A concern I have with the set office hours is that we have two stations.” he said.

Fandel said the new arrangement will be different from the conditions set upon his hiring.

“(Township Board members) said office hours wouldn’t be required,” he said. “I have viewed this job as being a 24/7 position and I am always available to the department members.”

Still, department members in their letters complained that they have had trouble contacting Fandel with urgent questions during some shifts. Wrote one firefighter, “He is normally busy running his other business and doesn’t have time to answer the phone when the crew has a question. I have heard of several crew members who have waited for hours before receiving a return phone call or email or text.”

Fandel said he carries his cell phone at all times, and returns calls or e-mail as quickly as he can.

Fandel is the township’s first full-time fire chief. He received $61,430 in compensation in 2011. Some $55,000 was paid in salary, with other compensation paid in categories such as duty pay, EMS on call, training and education.

All letters submitted by firefighters reflected low morale in the department. A few offered specific incidents, including Fandel’s actions one night in December 2010 following an officer’s dinner meeting when the chief allegedly turned indignant when his request to be served after last call was turned down, and eventually went to his truck where he flashed its emergency lights and flipped on the siren.
Fandel recalls the incident differently.

“I had asked for the drink after last call,” he said. “I didn’t realize it was after last call, but the bartender served me anyway.” After consuming the drink he went to his vehicle to wait for his wife, who works at the restaurant, to finish up some paper work. Fandel said he turned on his overhead lights to let her know it was time to go home.

“I didn’t flash my badge or turn on my siren,” Fandel said.

The biggest concern in the letters — by far was a belief that firefighters had been treated poorly and unfairly. Some firefighters had been unjustly fired, the letters stated. All were concerned about retaliation.

Wrote one firefighter, anonymously, “This department will continue to lose members as long as chief Fandel stays. That is not a threat, but a very real statement ... It is so sad that we as a department have to write in anonymously to have our voices heard.”
Fandel was frustrated by the allegations.

“I have always had an open door policy,” he said. “This idea that I can just fire people is wrong. Every disciplinary action I’ve taken as chief has been reviewed by the Fire Board and Township Board for action. I cannot just fire people.”

Fandel has fared well in job performance evaluations for 2008 and 2009, scoring 102 and 105 points out of a possible 120 points. However, his score dipped to 92 for 2010. He has yet to be evaluated by the Fire Board for his 2011 performance.

The FOIA request also resulted in scores of email correspondence between township officials, who have been attempting to sort through the morale problem. For instance, Cal Little, chair of the Fire Board, emailed to other members on Dec. 27, “In the landscape we’re dealing with, I think several soft, well-worded attitudinal questions to the members revolving around their perceptions will tell us if the chief can turn the ship. All provided, of course, we can inspire members to render honest evaluations ...”

The next joint meeting of the two boards has not been scheduled. The Fire Board will hold its next regular meeting on Tuesday, at 7 p.m. in the township office in Lake Leelanau.

By Chris Olson
chris@leelanaunews.com
and Alan Campbell
alan@leelanaunews.com
of the Enterprise staff

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