Mayor: ‘We want a fire department that runs like our police department’

Published 7:08 am Friday, January 22, 2010

This is the first in what will become a monthly “Talkin’ with Tom” feature. Each month, the Austin Daily Herald will sit down with Mayor Tom Stiehm and discuss the pressing local issues of the day. On Jan. 20, Stiehm chatted with the Herald about police chief Paul Philipp’s unexpected retirement, the city’s proposed wind turbine ordinance and who he likes in the NFC Championship Game.

How shocking was the news of chief Philipp’s retirement, if at all? And what were your initial thoughts?

Well it was surprising. You learn in life not to be surprised by anything, but I was about as surprised as I could be. My initial reaction was of sadness. I talked to a lot of officers down there, and it’s kind of like a death in the family. It’s rare when you have the head of a department that can get that much loyalty and yet be strict and firm in their actions. You know, run a tight ship and still command that type of loyalty from people.

What role do you see yourself playing in replacing chief Philipp?

According to charter, the mayor is in charge of the police department. We’ve just had a long charter commission (process) … for two years they’ve been analyzing the charter. There were people who thought that should be changed, and people who thought that should stay the same. Ultimately, that’s not one of the things that was changed … So, basically, the mayor is in charge. I don’t see myself in any role other than putting people in the positions to do the job. I’m not going to go back into the Law Enforcement Center … I’m not going to have anything to do with the day-to-day operations of the police department. If there are some major decisions to be made … yeah they can touch base with me on it. But we have excellent people. We have people who have been there for 20 some years. We haven’t had a captain in two and a half years now, and in a way that’s bad because there’s nobody who can step right into (the chief’s position). But in a way that’s good because we’ve had different people taking those duties. So, they’ll probably continue. Instead of putting one person in charge, what I think we’ll do is put several people in charge of their respective areas.

Do you see an interim (police) chief like the fire department will have?

Not initially, no. We’re going to see how this system works. Of course, we’ll look at it after a month. If I’m getting phone calls and there are issues, then maybe we’ll look at adjusting it. I don’t foresee that happening. I know these people, and it’s just not going to happen. But if it does, you have to be ready to change things and move in different directions.

Do you think your experience as police officer helps, not only in this process but in finding a full-time police chief?

Absolutely, and I think my experience with this department and these people helps, because I know all the people who are going to be taking over these duties. I know what they’ve been doing. I know what the expectations are going to be moving down the road.

What timetable should citizens expect in replacing Philipp?

As soon as possible. But you don’t want to rush things. If we get another chief, it could be a chief for 20 years. So, if it takes an extra week to two weeks, then that’s the way it’ll be. We just don’t want to make mistakes. But the process is a pretty well defined process that we’ve done many times for many different positions. It’s just that we don’t do it for chief that often. It’s been 20 years since we promoted him to chief. I was there when that process happened. We’ll move it along. We’ll have a new chief in place by summer, easily by summer.

I’ve asked you this before, but I think it’s appropriate to discuss again: With the fire chief retired and the police chief now retiring, both amid investigations, does it give the city a black eye? And should citizens feel safe, (because) soon you won’t have a fire chief or a police chief?

We’ll have a fire chief. It’ll just be an acting chief. Right now, we have (commander Brian) Lovik in there running it, and he’s fully capable. I think because of the situation and the divisions we’ve had in the fire department, going outside for a 30-day temporary chief is the perfect thing. He can give us advice. “Fix this.” “Do this.” We’re looking at somebody who’s a tried and true fire person — not only knowledgeable about the fire end of it, but the personnel end of it. What have we been doing wrong, what do we need to fix — we want a smooth running department. We want a fire department that runs like our police department. And because the police department is running the way it is, we don’t need to go bring someone in from outside. There are no divisions in the police department. You don’t see police officers going to the council meetings saying this is wrong and they want this. If anything, when people talk about Paul (Philipp), I think his legacy is his department, how he leads his department. I don’t think people should feel anything (negative). These are just normal things that happen. It’s just life.

And safety isn’t an issue?

Nope, nope, nope. If there’s one thing about our fire department, it’s that they’re competent. They might like to come to the meetings and let their views be known, but if you see the way they put out fires, you wouldn’t have a problem with what they do. They’re very good at what they do. And our police officers are the same. If people actually knew the police department and the fire department the way I did, I think they’d feel very safe.

Speaking of investigations, the city announced the investigation into (former fire chief) Dan Wilson is complete with no disciplinary action being taken. What are your thoughts on that resolution?

I think that’s the right way to go. Why would we spend more money on an investigation that’s going to come back and give us information we can’t use? Let’s assume we go through the investigation and they come back and they say anything, you’re going to continue the divisions you had. They say Dan Wilson was a horrible chief, then all of a sudden you’re putting that division back in. (If they say) Dan Wilson didn’t do anything wrong, then the firefighters will be mad. Let’s just leave it the way it is. Everyone can claim victory, and we’ll move forward.

Like you mentioned, some firefighters have expressed concern over the city’s interim plan (for the fire chief position). Are you confident this is the best approach?

Yes, because of the situation our fire department is in. I mean, there are a lot of divisions in our fire department. Assume you don’t bring somebody in, what are you going to do? You’re going to do basically what the people there want you to do. And that may or may not be the best thing. A lot of times, when people retire, you use them in an advisory capacity for a while. And we may very well do that with Paul (Philipp). But with Dan (Wilson), you could have a perfectly viable option put in front of you by Dan, but because Dan was the one who put it in front of you, it may not be accepted. So, what you do is get someone from the outside. If he gives you the options, he doesn’t have a history, the negative history that Dan has with this department, (at least) with some people. So, you have to listen to this. And we did get some of those things, to be quite honest, from our attorney when we did the investigation. She came back with a few criticisms, aside from the fire chief. It’s self-criticism. Any criticism should be constructive, it’s all how you accept it.

The city recently submitted its cost statement in court in the Maria Leon case. Do you see this as a significant step forward and when do you see something going in downtown?

Well, we’re just going by the numbers as fast as we can. We want that property developed. We’ve had inquiries from people … It’s a very good likelihood that the city will end up with that, and if that’s the case, we have more control at that point. But then again, you’re asking the taxpayer to do more, and I’m not sure that’s correct. We’ll have to see how it works out. We couldn’t possibly go any faster than we are. In hindsight, we probably could have moved forward on the court case a little faster, but we were hoping for cooperation. You have to realize you’re not going to get cooperation from people before you move forward with the court case. So there’s really not much we could have done differently, and we just want to get that property developed. It’s much better the way it is now, then with all the (debris). A lot safer, looks better. We’re trying to attract business to town, and you don’t need a big junk pile on your Main Street. At least we got rid of that. And it’s an opportunity. I think you should try to look for the opportunity in everything … We used to have a couple of dilapidated buildings. We didn’t put any money into those buildings … Now they’re gone, and we can put something in real nice down there. We just have to try to control the costs as much as we can.

The wind turbine ordinance is close to passing, and it could on Feb. 1. Do you have concerns about (possibly) allowing turbines in residential areas, or do the benefits outweigh any negatives?

Well you know, there are negatives to everything. I don’t think you can just look at the negative side of it, and you’d hate to say “no” to wind energy. We’re a green community, we want to promote the green aspects of energy. So, what do you do? We have a planning commission, and if you look at the commission, they’re pretty competent people. They looked at (the issue), and they looked at it long and hard. Council’s looked at it long and hard, and this is the ordinance they came up with. I would be surprised if you saw any windmills going up in residential areas. They’ll be smaller, and there are setbacks. (The ordinance) is pretty restrictive. So it’s not that anyone can put up a windmill anywhere in a residential area. I see (the ordinance) as good … You can’t just say “no windmills.” You can’t do that and still call ourselves a green community.

The city’s new social host ordinance was used for the first time recently. What are your thoughts, both as the mayor and a former member of law enforcement, on the law?

The great fear, I think, among community members was that the ordinance would be abused. You know, we were going to charge parents for letting their children have a glass of wine. We talked to Lee Bjorndal, the city attorney in Albert Lea, and he said there were 11 charges in the last year, and none of them were parents. None of them were adults. That’s the main thing the ordinance is going to be used for. Apparently, that’s what it was used for in the case we have. Obviously, I saw a need for it as a (former) police officer. Lot of times you’d go to these parties, and they’d just laugh at you. You’d walk away and you knew there were all kinds of kids there. There really wasn’t much you could do. This puts some teeth into the law.

The county board’s special election is coming up Feb. 10. What roles do you see the winner playing in relation to the city? And how important is it (for the city) to build a good relationship with the new county board member?

I’d like to have a good relationship with (the winner). I was sitting right here one day, and it was “Tolly” (former county board commissioner Dave Tollefson) at the door. I’d met him before, but I really didn’t know him. We talked and he said, “Boy, if you get elected, and I get elected, we got to get that justice center downtown.” We agreed on it. I thought it was a lot more of a long shot than he did, but we both ended up in the positions we were in and … we worked together on some things with it. I tried to maintain that cooperation. We’d meet once a month, or every other week, down at Jerry’s and have a cup of coffee and just talk about things. Sometimes there were no issues, but he’d just let me know what was going on in the county, and I’d let him know what was going on in the city. We’d just talk, a lot of it was just personal stuff. It’d be nice (to have that type of relationship with the winner). I don’t anticipate that type of relationship, but it’s possible … You need to maintain a good relationship with the county board. There are too many walls up; there were too many walls up. I think a lot of those walls are down or lowered now, but you can never stop. Taxpayers don’t care if they’re paying their taxes to the county or the city. They’re just paying taxes.

Speaking of elections, your term ends this year. Have you decided whether you want to run again?

I haven’t. I don’t know. You lean toward it, obviously. It’d be nice — I kind of need a job. (But) it’s hard to say right now. I’m enjoying this … People say it must be hard with Paul (Philipp) retiring and all that, but I don’t think it’s hard at all. It’s much better when there’s something to do. Certainly I’m not glad Paul is retiring, but it’s much better when you have things to do and projects. I feel I’m fortunate that I’m in this position now and can help out when they’re going through transition in the police department.

Are you excited about the opportunity of getting a junior hockey team in town?

You know, I grew up in Milwaukee, and it’s not a hockey city. So, I didn’t grow up with hockey … But I came here and could see Austin was clearly a hockey town … (So) yeah, I’m really excited. When the Olympics were good back in 1980, I was a hockey fan then. And I anticipate I would certainly be going to some games. I think when you get to know the teams, you get to know the people, you get to know the league, it’s a lot easier to be a fan. I’m excited for the people of Austin. Hockey people are excited for it. I don’t see a downside to it right now.

Lastly, who you picking this weekend: the Vikings or the Saints?

Oh, you gotta’ pick the Vikings. You know, I’m an old Packer fan, too, coming from Wisconsin. But Brett Favre gave a lot of us old Packer fans the opportunity to hop on the Viking bandwagon. I’m on. How you can you be a mayor in Minnesota and not be a Viking fan? It took a few years, but you bet (I’m a fan). I hope the Vikings win. I think they’re going to win.

To get involved with “Talkin’ with Tom,” e-mail reporter Mike Rose with questions for the mayor at mike.rose@austindailyherald.com. Please use the subject line, “Talkin’ with Tom” and include your first and last name, as well as your city of residence. Some selected questions may be used in upcoming interviews, though the Herald does not guarantee publication, and submissions may be edited for space and content.