By SHELLY WILKISON
Fire Chief Bruce Watson was fired by a unanimous vote of the Williamson County Emergency Services District #4 Commissioners Tuesday.
Following a one-hour executive session, Commissioner Emory Martin made a motion to terminate Watson from the Chief’s position effective immediately with his last day being Friday. The motion was seconded by Commissioner Dana Ripley, and Commissioners Sandra Taylor and ESD President Dean Andrews voted yes.
As part of the same vote, Commissioner Taylor was authorized to identify an interim chief who will serve for the next 30 days while the Board can make plans for recruiting a permanent replacement.
Tuesday’s vote was the second time in three months that the Board has entertained a motion to fire Watson. On Oct. 18, Martin made a similar motion, but it failed for lack of a second. (Read the story.)
“On behalf of the Board, I want to thank you for the service you provided,” Andrews told Watson after the vote. “We consider you a friend even through this difficult task.”
There was no discussion among the commissioners in open meeting about the reasons for Watson’s termination. Watson, who was present for the vote, told The Independent after the meeting that he preferred not to comment on the Board’s decision. Only The Independent was present at Tuesday’s meeting.
After the meeting adjourned, Andrews said that the Chief had failed to adhere to “certain contractual agreements, including showing up to work on time.”
He said that Watson was warned repeatedly over an extended period of time about not keeping regular business hours. As the department’s chief administrator, Andrews said the Board expected the Chief to be available at the fire station during the typical work day.
“I don’t think anyone in the room wanted to do that (fire Watson), but we felt it was in the best interest of the department,” Andrews said.
When asked whether firefighters had any input into the Board’s decision, Andrews said he could not speak for other commissioners, but his decision was based on his own observations and the concerns he heard from the community.
“The community was concerned about the amount of time the Chief was (not) here,” he said.
Andrews added that “prominent people in the community” had complained about the amount of time it seemed that firefighters were spending at local restaurants. “They say they can’t get into the parking lots of places sometimes because of all the fire trucks,” he said, adding that Watson had been asked to discourage employees from doing it.
“We’re trying to be different and not trying to hide anything. We’re trying to be transparent (with the community),” Andrews said.
“There were other things that we asked be done over that time,” Andrews said. Some of the issues the Board felt were not adequately addressed related to training and inspections of fire hydrants. “Things didn’t improve over the past three months,” he said.
Andrews said that during Watson’s two years as chief, he “did a lot of good things for the district. He brought unity to the board” after a tumultuous time that involved the termination of the previous fire chief. Before the Board hired Watson, the district had been without a chief since the controversial termination of James Pogue in May 2009.
Watson was hired in February 2010 by the current Board of Commissioners plus Gene Gatlin, who passed away earlier this month. At the time he was hired, Watson was fire chief for the City of Taylor where he had served since 2007. Prior to that, he was fire chief for Travis County ESD #6, and previously worked for fire departments in Round Rock, College Station, Plainview and Austin.
Andrews said Tuesday that commissioners became more concerned about Watson’s ability to effectively lead the department when they learned a few months ago that personnel costs had gone over budget by some $45,000.
“He had total control over that,” Andrews said.
The Board asked Watson to provide detailed reports showing hours spent on inspections versus the income generated on those inspections. A report was also provided showing the personnel costs associated with the department’s fire prevention program — skits performed by firefighters to help educate children on how to prevent fires and how to escape safely from a fire. Watson briefed the Board on those reports earlier in Tuesday’s meeting.
Andrews said Watson was not given severence pay.
“Bruce is a man of good character. He is a great family man and always puts his family first,” Andrews said.