The recently completed study of the county's fire services was expected to dominate the meeting. Instead, Spring Hill Fire Rescue commissioners on Wednesday night turned their attention to veteran fire Chief J.J. Morrison.
In a 4-1 vote that left the meeting room completely still, the fire board chose not to renew Morrison's six-year contract when it expires at the end of this month. They did extend his time as chief through February, to give the department time to figure out what to do next.
"I think it's time for this department to go in a different direction," said Fire Commissioner George Biro, who pushed the issue at the meeting.
"It bothers me to say that,'' he added. "We need somebody full time to put their heart and soul into this department."
Fire board members cited Morrison's ongoing illness as one of the reasons for making their decision. As the fire department has fought with the county over consolidation the past two years, he has missed several months of work because of bad health.
On Wednesday, and again Thursday, Morrison had no comment about the board's decision, his health or his plans. Morrison, 50, has worked at Spring Hill Fire for 22 years, and was promoted to head the department in 2002.
In recent months, much of Morrison's workload was handled by assistant chiefs Bill Davies and Mike Rampino, although Morrison did work from home.
With a November referendum on whether the fire district should be independent from the county looming, fire commissioners said they want a committed force to ensure that Spring Hill Fire Rescue sticks around.
"I know the chief's health is tough, and it's dragging him down," said Fire Commissioner Leo Jacobs, who said he wrestled with his decision Wednesday. "He's had an awful hard two years here.
"But what I think we have to take into consideration," Jacobs said to Morrison, "for you and your children, is your health. I know you won't quit until you fall down."
Commissioner Gene Panozzo was the only board member to vote against the measure. He said that if he were the chief being forced into retirement, he wouldn't feel indebted to helping out the department in any way.
"This is the best chief we've had," Panozzo said. "And you're not going to get a better chief than this one. This man has bent over backwards and spoken up for this department at (County) Commission meetings when none of us were there."
Talk among the board included moving Rampino into Morrison's spot and moving current District Chief Kevin Carroll into Rampino's spot. But they decided to deal with those matters later.
Local 2794 president Troy Hagar said that he supported the board's decision. He added that a search outside the department for a new chief would be a good idea.
"I think that Chief Morrison is fully capable when he's on his game," Hagar said. "I just don't know that it's there due to what he's gone through."
Firefighters have had a mixed response to the news. Hagar said there was a feeling in the department that there might be a change of the guard, but no one expected it to happen so quickly.
Chandra Broadwater can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1432.