Fire chief resigns; accepts settlement

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After more than a decade of service, Valencia County Fire Chief Charles Eaton has tendered his resignation.

Charles Eaton: Resigns

Last December, Eaton found himself at odds with the county administration. Due to what he claimed was discrimination based on disability and age, Eaton filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

In the complaint, Eaton wrote he had also been discriminated against in retaliation for complaining about the discrimination based on a disability.

At the close of the Aug. 1 meeting, the county commissioners authorized County Manager Bruce Swingle to negotiate a settlement with Eaton to resolve the EEOC complaint.

In an interview earlier this week, Eaton said due to the confidentiality of the settlement, he couldn’t discuss the monetary figures involved, but did say part of the settlement required him to step down from his position as county fire chief.

“This was not something I wanted to do. Unfortunately, with the financial hardship we incurred with retaining an attorney and some of the medical costs incurred during this ordeal, I was faced with the financial situation that I had to pretty much settle the claim or continue,” Eaton said.

“This was not something I wanted to do, he said. “There were circumstances beyond my control and I had to do something I didn’t want to do.”

Eaton resigned effective on Aug. 2.

Swingle said he could not comment on the EEOC complaint, since it was a personnel issue.

“My focus is on the fact that we’re losing a very dedicated and talented man, who has done a lot for the fire service and the county,” Swingle said. “It is unfortunate that he is no longer with us.

“I have worked with Charles for a number of years, most recently as the manager and prior to that, as the loss prevention manager for the New Mexico Association of Counties. He has always done an outstanding job,” Swingle said. “He has moved fire and EMS forward light years from where it was. He will be missed and will be a tough act to follow. I didn’t want to lose him as a director.”

Swingle said the county would begin advertising for a new fire chief shortly. In the meantime, Valencia County Deputy Chief Brian Culp has been named interim chief.

“Brian has served as interim chief before,” Swingle said. “The chief left the department in good hands.”

Eaton joined the county fire services administration in 1999 and became the first ever county fire chief in 2006.

“I think in spite of the tough economic times we’ve suffered the last few years, we’ve made great strides in the service, especially when it comes to improving facilities,” Eaton said. “When you look across county, there are stations we’ve been able to renovate and some, completely replace.”

During Eaton’s tenure, the Rio Grande Estates fire station was renovated and expanded and the Tomé/Adelino station was renovated as well.

“In Valencia/El Cerro, we took them from a station that was falling apart, with structural damage, in deplorable condition, to a brand new station,” he said. “In Meadow Lake, they had a two-bay station with apparatuses stacked up, having to juggle trucks to get out. We were able to expand and put in additional bays, more space for apparatus.”

Los Chavez got a totally new station, and the department was in the planning stages for improvements to the Jarales/Pueblitos station.

“We’ve done some renovations at Manzano Vista to house personnel there 24/7,” he said. “We were able to purchase new apparatus and place it in each and every station.”

In a time when across the state and nation other services were suffering because of the economy, Eaton says Valencia County was able to get equipment, such as new trucks.

“We were able to grow and that’s a testimony that when you plan and budget right, you can do things,” he said. “And it’s not just because I was the leader of the organization. The credit goes to the staff and leaders within the departments and them sharing the same vision I had.

“Any organization is only as good as its personnel and support staff. Valencia County is very fortunate and should be thankful that 95 percent of its personnel is still volunteer. Sometimes we forget that fact.”

As chief, Eaton was also able to introduce the first ever career personnel into the county’s fire and EMS system.

“The volunteer system is something that is diminishing. Unfortunately, it is dying throughout the nation and we’re starting to see that here,” he said. “We are having to compensate by hiring personnel and we are going to have to continue to grow upon that in the years to come.”

Through the introduction of protocol and procedures that promoted professionalism in the service, Eaton said they were able to create a program that promotes safety for personnel and for the public.

Additionally he and his staff were able to secure grant funding to hire a wildland coordinator, a person who can bring specialized training to fire personnel on wildland fires.

“We’ve come a long ways and there is still a long ways to go. I planted a seed and I think with the right organization and structure it will continue growing,” Eaton said. “We will continue to see a positive reflection upon that organization that benefits the residents of the county.”

Eaton said the county manager wanted him to attend one more commission meeting, to go out with a “bang” and receive a plaque for his service and time.

“I don’t need that. Rather than five people who don’t mean it, I’d rather have a Bob Gostischa or a Mike Wood or any member of the public saying, ‘job well done,’” he said. “They mean more to me than anyone else.”

But now it’s time for Eaton to “hit the campaign trail” in his bid for the Commission District 4 seat.

“We’re able to go full steam and focus on the campaign. My No. 1 focus on the campaign has been to help public safety — fire, EMS and law enforcement,” he said.

“Hopefully, I will be in a different role come January to continue to advocate for public safety. I’m still going to be around. These guys are still my family. This is a temporary disconnect.

“I would never have envisioned the opportunity given to me when I first started with fire service, to be in this role for six year,” Eaton said of his time as the county’s fire chief. “I want to thank the residents, the organization, volunteers and staff for all the support they’ve given me. I couldn’t have done it without them.”

Eaton’s voice tightens and chokes with emotion as he speaks.

“It’s been an amazing ride, you know? The opportunity was tremendous and it will always be cherished. If I was given the opportunity to do something different, looking back, I would say ‘No.’ It’s been a great opportunity to work with this family.

“Through good and bad times, we’ve shed blood, sweat and tears together. They are a tremendous group of people and I would put them up against anyone in the state for doing the job they do.”


-- Email the author at jdendinger@news-bulletin.com.