For Shawn Morris, next month's Gordonville Area Fire Protection District election is more important than the ballot language suggests. To the board's vice president and like-minded others, the outcome could help the district reverse course from an ugly two-year period that has been marred by abrupt dismissals, angry resignations and public outrage over decisions some felt could have been handled better.
Voters among the 7,300 residents served by the all-volunteer fire department will be asked Nov. 6 to allow the three-member board to be expanded to five. While some may yawn, proponents like Morris say that a more diversified and larger board could have helped the district avoid recent problems that perhaps have made it as well known for controversy as for putting out fires.
"To me, it could be about starting over," said Morris, one of three existing board members who also is a firefighter for the Cape Girardeau Fire Department. "If we get more members with different backgrounds, it will bring more opinions and more ways of thinking. I think it would have a positive effect when we go to a five-member board."
One of the county's seven fire protection districts, the department serves rural portions of Cape Girardeau County with boundaries that reach east to Cape Girardeau, north to Jackson, south to the Diversion Channel and west almost to the Whitewater River. The district's residents pay 27 cents for every $100 in assessed valuation, which in 2011 generated $200,436 for the fire service.
If the board's future is as optimistic as Morris hopes, it would offer quite a contrast to the district's tumultuous recent past. The quarrels began in late 2010 with the resignations of five firefighters. The board, which also includes Jeffery Sneathen and Collin McClanahan, had just reinstated a firefighter who had been released from duty by fire captains because he had not attended mandatory training sessions or responded to calls in more than two years. The firefighters saw the reinstatement as the board undermining their decisions.
Residents and district firefighters were further irritated by construction delays of a new third department fire station that had been in the planning stages for a decade. The building had stood structurally complete in 2011, but the $400,000 project stalled with the need for carpentry, electricity and plumbing. It remains unfinished today.
Then, in July, the board set off a firestorm when it unexpectedly and without explanation fired fire chief Randy Morris Jr., prompting three firefighters to quit the force with threats of resignation from about 20 others. Board members had voted 2-1 to fire Morris, with Shawn Morris -- no relation -- voting against.
Firefighters shortly after presented a letter to the board asking it to address their grievances. The letter expressed firefighter frustration at Randy Morris' dismissal and added that he had advanced the department in firefighting and emergency medical services. The letter said the firefighters had lost confidence in the board.
Now, the former chief looks back and says the district's board fell victim to the "good old boy" problem.
"I fought that the whole time I was fire chief," Randy Morris said. "I think that's the reason I'm not there now. I think there are too many who want the department to be what it used to be."
Randy Morris, also a full-time firefighter with the Cape Girardeau department, said he agrees that a larger board would have helped avoid the troubles. It's harder for factions to form and overrule one isolated member, he said.
"I've had sleepless nights thinking about it, but I would go back," Randy Morris said. "I miss it. I'm ate up with firefighting. It would depend on who's on the board. I have no doubt that the firefighters are doing their best to make a good situation out of a crappy hand."
If voters approve the five-member board, they will face more decisions in April. That's when the two new members would be voted on and when the terms of two existing members -- McClanahan and Sneathen -- expire.
McClanahan said that, despite negative media coverage, things have already quieted down some. The remaining work on the district's third fire station is set to go out to bid this month. A permanent fire chief is set to be selected soon, and firefighter morale, while not fully rebounded yet, is improving.
"Sure, we've got our problems," McClanahan said. "If we get a five-member board, we'll be able to move forward. If we don't get one, we'll just keep trying to move forward."
711 Route Z, Gordonville, MO