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Editorial — Austin still in the dark about altercation

If you ask five people who were present during the confrontation between Fire Chief Dan Wilson and Austin resident Carla McCarthy to describe what they saw and heard at a Feb. 13 meeting, there’s a good chance you’d get five different accounts.

Something happened, but it happened quickly, and with no videotape or transcripts of the meeting, the facts of the matter will have to be sorted out through a lot of interviewing.

Meanwhile, the rumors fly. Did Wilson actually say, or at least imply, that he wouldn’t help McCarthy if her house was burning? Did McCarthy actually say, or at least imply, that she wouldn’t want Wilson to show up if her house was ablaze? Did Wilson shove McCarthy’s chair? Did a city administrator come between the two to keep the situation from escalating?

The lack of information is frustrating, because several city officials were present. This was a public meeting, and we’re not pleased that, at the advice of a city attorney, our elected leaders are refusing to describe what they saw. That leaves Austin largely in the dark until the Albert Lea Police Department concludes its investigation.

But for now, let’s jump ahead. If charges are brought against Wilson, it seems likely that he would be placed on some sort of administrative leave until the case is resolved. If no charges are filed, however, things get a bit more complicated for the city council.

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Mayor Tom Stiehm has told the Austin Post-Bulletin that the matter won’t simply be dropped if no criminal case exists.

"We hold all city workers to a higher standard, and department heads to an even higher standard," Stiehm said. "Chief Wilson is a department head, and we’re not going to drop this."

When we asked Stiehm if Wilson’s record as fire chief would be considered during the city’s investigation, the mayor said, "How could you avoid it?"

That record includes:

  • A vote of "no confidence" by Austin’s firefighters in 2000;
  • A city committee in July 2001 that concluded Wilson needed to show "vast improvement in the next six months" in several areas, including communication with command staff, interpersonal skills, anger control and professionalism;
  • Wilson’s use of a fire truck in 2002 to carry newlyweds from a church to the Austin Country Club — an incident that resulted in new regulations concerning the use of the city’s firefighting equipment;
  • An altercation in 2003 in which Wilson and James M. Mattice, another Austin firefighter, scuffled outside Wilson’s home. Then, as now, outside counsel was sought, and the Albert Lea city attorney recommended no charges against either party.

The incidents above have not prompted any disciplinary action against Wilson, and if it turns out that the recent incident was simply a difference of opinion that’s been blown out of proportion, then he will keep his job.
But if the facts indicate that he lost his temper, behaved in an unprofessional manner and berated an Austin resident during a public meeting, then the city council will have a very difficult decision to make, because a fire chief needs the ability to remain calm under fire — both literally and figuratively.

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