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Fire board optimistic after departure

In the Spring Hill Fire Rescue District, there is talk of healing wounds, boosting morale and moving on.

After a tumultuous year in which he twice was reprimanded publicly for mishandling taxpayer money, then kicked off the district's negotiating team during union contract talks, Chief Mike Morgan was forced into early retirement last week by an uncommonly resolute fire commission.

To hear commissioners tell it, Morgan's exit signals an end to persistent infighting and will usher in a new era of harmony.

But if history provides a glimpse into the future, the district's problems may not be over.

Historically, fire commissioners have squabbled among themselves and with the staff over operational and administrative matters, large and small.

Morgan was not the first chief to butt heads with his bosses. He came to the district in 1995, replacing Don Patterson, who resigned after repeated run-ins with fire commissioners.

After taking over, Morgan complained repeatedly and bitterly of micromanaging by board members he said were bent on getting rid of him.

The majority of commissioners say they are not that hard to please.

Good planning, communication and fiscal management skills provide keys to success, they add.

But at least two commissioners acknowledge the five-member board can be demanding.

"There's always somebody on the fire board that wants to be chief," said 10-year commission veteran Gene Panozzo. "This goes back as long as I've been around."

Rookie Commissioner Richard Martin predicted the board will look for a more cooperative spirit from the next chief.

"I don't think it's going to be an easy job for whoever fills the position," he said.

To replace Morgan, commissioners have named his second in command, J.J. Morrison, as interim chief.

Morrison, who was hired in 1986, receives high marks from board members for his knowledge and professionalism. They point to his help this year in negotiating a labor contract with the union as proof of his ability to lead the district in the right direction.

"As far as I'm concerned, J.J.'s been running this district for the last two years," Chairman Bob Kanner said Thursday.

Pleasing the board, Kanner added, is not necessarily a contradiction in terms.

"I'm looking for a chief that can bring unity to the staff, rank and file, and the board," he said. "I'm not going to be able to agree with a chief 100 percent of the time. I want to see that whenever a question arises it can easily be worked out and resolved."

Commissioner Jeff Hollander said he plans to recommend a vote at the board's next meeting Wednesday to give Morrison the job.

"This guy has a proven track record," Hollander said. "J.J., unlike bringing on a new chief, is a known entity. There should be no surprises here. We need to basically let him do his job."

After the dust settles, Kanner said, the board will hold a workshop to discuss how to move forward.

He said Morrison deserves a chance to prove he can handle the job.

Kanner said he anticipates immediate improvement in the district's morale.

"As far as I'm concerned, this chapter's closed," he said. "(It is) time to move on, get this district back on track."

Hollander agreed.

"The history is past," he said. "It's time to move forward."

Panozzo, meanwhile, said he made a point last week to speak with Morrison about what lies ahead.

"I said, "Are you ready to step up, and do you want to step up?' " Panozzo recalled. "It's dangerous because in six months you could be the next target."

Morrison said Friday he is ready for the challenge.

"Every firefighter in their career track looks forward to someday becoming a fire chief," he said. "This isn't the way that I would've wanted to get this opportunity. Right now, the fire commission has asked me to fulfill a function, and the plan is to fulfill that function to the best of my ability and see what the future holds."

_ Staff writer Jennifer Farrell covers Spring Hill and can be reached at 848-1432. Send e-mail to farrellsptimes.com.

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