A deputy fire chief with the Los Pinos Fire Protection District says he was fired this week in retaliation for raising ethical and potentially fraudulent concerns involving the chief of the department.
And now, nearly the entire crew of the Los Pinos Fire Protection District is calling for the removal of its five-person board of directors through a recall election as a result of the firing.
“I don’t know how this got switched around on me,” said Kevin Ratzmann, the deputy chief who was fired Monday. “This is clear retaliation.”
Chief Tom Aurnhammer did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story.
Four board members either declined comment or did not return requests for comment. Members include James Brown, Kirk Becker, Paul Blocker, Mark Williams and Frank Weis. The board sent The Durango Herald a memo that said Ratzmann’s firing is a personnel matter and declined further comment.
Weis, who has been on the board about five years, said Ratzmann’s firing was not an act of retaliation for raising concerns about Aurnhammer.
“We let chief Ratzmann go for cause,” he said. “He’s got the support of his firefighters and they’re standing behind him, but they don’t have all the facts.”
He declined to explain further.
Ratzmann, speaking to the Herald, said he filed complaints with the board in October accusing Aurnhammer of misusing district funds, failing to return retirement money and abusing his position for personal gain.
Around the first week of October, Ratzmann said a Los Pinos Fire mechanic, Troy Brady, approached him with concerns that Aurnhammer was making Brady work on Aurnhammer’s personal vehicle while on duty.
Brady apparently told Aurnhammer he did not feel right about working on the vehicle while on duty, Ratzmann said. But the fire chief told Brady it was fine and bought him a bottle of Crown Royal whiskey.
“Our chain of command stops with the fire chief,” Ratzmann said. “So then he brought it to me.”
The next week, Ratzmann informed the board about Brady’s complaint. On Oct. 11, the board held a special meeting and put Aurnhammer on “vacation” while the allegations were investigated.
At the meeting, other complaints against Aurnhammer surfaced, namely, that he did not return a $23,000 retirement bonus that he received, even after he extended his employment.
A few days after the meeting, Aurnhammer announced he would retire Dec. 28.
But over the next month, while the board supposedly investigated claims against Aurnhammer, Ratzmann said the board turned on him and became “extremely hostile.”
Ratzmann believes Aurnhammer started spreading false accusations about him, and that some members of the board, who have been friends with Aurnhammer for almost 20 years, sided with Aurnhammer.
On Oct. 19, Ratzmann said he was forced to sign an order that put him on administrative leave. And on Monday, Ratzmann was fired in a unanimous decision by the board.
At Monday’s meeting when Ratzmann was fired, a number of crew members came to his side in support. Despite their pleas to keep Ratzmann on, the board fired him.
“It was just a slap in the face,” said Seth St. Germain, a captain for the district. “The trust was just completely and utterly destroyed.”
Los Pinos Fire covers 325 square miles in southeastern La Plata County and parts of Archuleta County, including Ignacio, Arboles, Allison, Oxford and the corridor along La Plata County Road 318. It also covers parts of San Juan County, New Mexico.
Aurnhammer, 60, became fire chief in 2016, after then-Chief Larry Behrens retired. Aurnhammer had served as deputy chief since 2003. Before joining, he worked as a fire chief in Farmington.
At the same time Aurnhammer was promoted, Ratzmann, 40, was hired, moving his family from Florida with the understanding he would take over as fire chief in about six months.
But Ratzmann said at the end of six months, Aurnhammer signed a five-year extension. It was at this point that he also took the retirement bonus that was never returned, Ratzmann said.
Ratzmann said Aurnhammer received the retirement payout in July 2016 and was supposed to retire. But he then signed a new contract in August.
St. Germain said that for the past two years, Ratzmann has essentially been running the entire operation at Los Pinos Fire. In that time, he’s earned the crew’s respect and trust, St. Germain said.
“We literally sat there and watched the individual we love and respect as our navigator and helmsman be violated,” he said. “They completely betrayed him.”
Though the board declined to elaborate on accusations against Ratzmann, Ratzmann provided the Herald with a board document that lists several complaints being investigated against him.
Those include inappropriately using Los Pinos Fire resources and equipment, making false statements against Aurnhammer, as well as conducting district business while placed on administrative leave.
Ratzmann refuted each of the accusations and said they are lies spread by Aurnhammer. He also said he requested the meeting where he was fired to be open so firefighters could attend, but the board denied the request.
Shortly after, crew members said they would pursue a recall election to remove the board. The crew hopes to have paperwork filed Wednesday and an election within the next 90 days.
Ratzmann said about 28 of the 30 paid and seasonal employees support the recall. He provided a number of letters of support from crew members.
“The board of directors has created a hostile work environment and completely gone against its members’ – being its employees – need for leadership,” said one firefighter and EMT who declined to be identified for fear of losing their job. “This is pure retaliation against him as an individual, not as a professional.”
Ratzmann said he has no disciplinary matters in his file nor work issues. It’s only after he filed complaints against Aurnhammer that the board took issue with his employment.
St. Germain also said the board is showing favoritism for Aurnhammer.
“They’ve allowed him to retire when he wants, have severance and be on vacation until the end of the year, yet Chief Ratzmann is fired,” he said. “To me, that screams there’s a buddy deal going on.”
St. Germain said he hopes all board members will be replaced and that Ratzmann can be reinstated.