Hillsville fire chief resigns

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By Christopher Brooke, Reporter

HILLSVILLE — Hillsville Fire Chief Mike Musser says he decided to resign his post and step down from Carroll County's Emergency Services Board due to what he characterized as the county's lack of trust in his leadership.

The Carroll supervisors this week sidestepped the issue of reinstating Hillsville firefighter Roger Hawthorne, who Musser said deserved a second chance.

Musser watched from the audience at the Carroll County Board of Supervisors meeting Monday as county officials discussed the ESB's decision Nov. 12 to reinstate Hawthorne as a volunteer on the fire department.

After the meeting, Musser says he decided to resign as fire chief and step down from the ESB, due to what he characterized as the county's lack of faith in his leadership in refusing to reinstate Hawthorne.

The fire chief had suspended Hawthorne from the department last October, pending the results of a Virginia State Police investigation of embezzlement from the Carroll County Chamber of Commerce, where Hawthorne had served as director.

In December, Hawthorne pleaded guilty to petit larceny, a misdemeanor, and paid restitution of $20,000 to the chamber.

A majority of the membership of the fire department voted to reinstate Hawthorne at a meeting June 16. Musser said then that he felt Hawthorne had paid his to debt to society.

To not let Hawthorne use his skills to serve his community again after that would have been an injustice, Musser had said.

But just a few days after that vote, Carroll Administrator Gary Larrowe administratively suspended Hawthorne.

That banned Hawthorne from being on county property or operating county equipment, which effectively excluded him from running calls with the volunteer fire department. (Carroll County holds title to fire engines for insurance purposes.)

The conclusion reached by Larrowe and Supervisor Andy Jackson at Monday's county board meeting was that the ESB does not have the authority to reinstate a suspended volunteer by itself.  Only the county supervisors have the authority to do that, and the elected officials did not take up the issue of Hawthorne's reinstatement on Monday.

Musser took the supervisors' inaction as a sign that they wanted the matter to go away.

When he got home from the meeting, Musser decided to cut short his term as fire chief, though he intended to remain a firefighter, and to take himself off the ESB.

He wrote a letter on the evening of Nov. 16 to that effect, ending his tenure as chief about halfway into his two-year term.

"This notice will serve as my resignation as fire chief of Hillsville Fire Department as well as my resignation from the Carroll County Emergency Services Board," said his letter, addressed to Larrowe. "It has been my pleasure to serve the citizens of Carroll County in the capacity of fire chief since Jan. 1, 2005."

He intended to formalize his resignation as chief at a fire department meeting Tuesday.

"I just don't feel that I have support from the county any more," Musser told The Gazette on Tuesday.

He didn't think his leaving the chief's post would disrupt the fire department's ability to respond to emergencies.

"There's lots of qualified people down there," Musser said. "It doesn't hinge on one person — it's a team."

"Everyone was stunned," David Young, the department photographer, said about the resignation after the meeting. "No one wants this."

Musser saw a lack of trust in his leadership in the supervisors' unwillingness to reinstate Hawthorne.

Convicted of a misdemeanor, Hawthorne has paid his debt, Musser said. If allowed to rejoin the department, Musser maintains that Hawthorne would contribute greatly to the fire department and to the community.

Hawthorne would have been under Musser's supervision as a firefighter. Restrictions placed on Hawthorne would have made him a probationary member, he would not have been allowed to become an officer and he would not have any access to department funds.

Musser found it interesting that the supervisors at the same meeting approved a list of qualifications for volunteers to serve on rescue and fire services, as well as a list of items that would disqualify people from becoming volunteers. (See the info box with this story for both lists.)

It's ironic that nothing on that list would have disqualified Hawthorne from serving as a volunteer, Musser said. That list does not say that people convicted of a misdemeanor can't volunteer.

"If they go by those guidelines, he is eligible," Musser noted.

"Mike has been a provider of fire services in this community since he was in high school and he has done an admirable job in that," Larrowe told The Gazette on Wednesday.

It's a disappointment to Larrowe that someone with Musser's technical firefighting knowledge and management experience has chosen to resign.

"It's not that he didn't have the support of the county as chief at all," Larrowe said. "It's just one of those kinds of situation I wish could have been avoided.

"I think it's a loss to the community that he's chosen to resign."

It's a good thing, however, that Musser will continue to serve the community as a firefighter, the county administrator said.

Vehicle fire investigated

Monday was eventful for Musser in another way, too — after the meeting, the fire department vehicle he used caught fire in his driveway.

This happened a few minutes after he had plugged in the vehicle with an extension cord to keep the battery charged, Musser said. "I went inside and within minutes I heard something pop and I looked outside and it was on fire in the driveway."

The fire started in the engine compartment of the 2003 Chevy Trailblazer.

The timing of that incident couldn't have been worse, he said.

On Tuesday, Musser got word second-hand that Carroll County had asked a fire marshal to investigate the vehicle fire, a fact that was confirmed to The Gazette by Carroll Emergency Services Director Joe Roma.

"We're just going to have it checked out to see what happened," Roma said.

The emergency services director considered the vehicle damaged beyond repair.

"It's unfortunate my vehicle caught fire last night," Musser said. "I'm sure the investigation will show it's a mechanical failure."

If the point of the investigation is to verify Musser's version of events, that's fine, but Musser also felt that county officials should have given him the courtesy of telling him they were calling in a fire marshal.

On Wednesday, Roma shared the results found by the fire marshal with The Gazette.

"We looked at the vehicle and we determined that it was the heat block that shorted out and started the fire," he said.

A prong on the device that keeps the vehicle warmed up shorted out and the resulting fire spread through the engine compartment.

"It's an accident," Roma said. "We just brought in the fire marshal to confirm the cause. After every fire you want to know the cause."

Musser had been informed of those results, as well.

Larrowe stressed that the county had an independent official examine the fire in the chief's vehicle to have confirmation that it was indeed an accident. "There was no thought it was anything other than an accident."

Moving On

"I'm at peace with it now," Musser said about these issues on Wednesday. "It's time for all of it to go away."

It's time for these issues to die down and both Carroll County and the Hillsville Fire Department focus on the mission of serving the public.

Assistant Chief Donnie Spangler will serve as the acting chief in the interim.

Hillsville Fire Department members will hold an election in December for a chief to serve out the balance of Musser's two-year term.