Photo by Jamie Wiggan
McKees Rocks volunteer firefighters assembled at the fire station as Board President and Deputy Chief James Tarbert delivered remarks to council Jan. 12.
By Jamie Wiggan
McKees Rocks firefighters say they’ve fallen victim to political cronyism after learning former council president Paul Krisby appointed a neighboring fire chief to take charge of the borough’s volunteer company.
Krisby’s letter confirming the appointment to Allegheny County’s emergency service division followed closely on the heels of a member-wide vote to replace long-time chief Nick Radoycis with first lieutenant Donald Baird. Krisby has since resigned from council stating health reasons.
Dated Dec. 29, the letter states “Michael Stepek, Sr. [fire chief at Presston Volunteer Fire Department in Stowe] will handle all business related to the Borough of McKees Rocks Volunteer Fire Department effective January 1, 2021 until further notice.”
Although he knew Krisby disapproved of the leadership changes made in December, Jim Tarbert, board president and deputy chief of the McKees Rocks company, said the volunteers were left in the dark about his move to override their election.
“They did it entirely behind our backs,” Tarbert said. “We were never notified about it until Mike Stepek came down to the department and asked to discuss it with us… It was an entire personal vendetta against the volunteer fire department because of the friendship between President Krisby and Nick Radoycis.”
During a Jan. 12 council meeting where Tarbert addressed the board on the issue, several councilmembers indicated they were also unaware a new chief had been assigned.
Before resigning Jan. 8, Krisby said by opposing Baird’s appointment, he was pushing back against a shift of power toward volunteer firefighters who reside in Kennedy Township. He said he would work to replace Radoycis with another McKees Rocks resident, and penned an earlier letter to Baird saying council would appoint a new chief during its January business meeting.
Taking up a similar tack Jan. 12, councilmembers Joe Mixter and Chas Maritz argued the fire department should submit to the borough’s direction.
“Do you recognize the oversight of the borough council and the authority?” Mixter asked Tarbert. “Because you are not an independent fire company — you are a dependent fire company.”
Tarbert said he recognized the borough’s financial contributions to the department, but pointed out they are incorporated as an independent company and are authorized by their bylaws to elect their own officers.
Dating back to 1983, the contract between the two parties does not provide for the borough to make personnel appointments within the department.
Council did not take action to confirm or overturn Stepek’s appointment Jan. 12, although the members reportedly held an extensive executive session where they discussed the issue.
“They’re gonna continue to operate the way they are now, where they’re not in office right now,” Maritz said. “Mikey Stepek’s in charge of the McKees Rocks fire department.”
Following the meeting, Tarbert said he was contacted by newly-elected Council President Archie Brinza, who told him council would resolve the dispute at a special meeting scheduled for Jan. 21 at 1 p.m.
“I am hopeful and optimistic that we can put this to bed,” Tarbert said.
Brinza said he didn’t want to give firm answers on a matter of ongoing discussion but said he’s committed to finding a solution that works for everybody.
“It is a work in progress,” he said.
In the meantime, Tarbert assured there won’t be any disruption to the borough’s fire service.
“We will still respond if there’s a house fire, we will still keep the resident safety in our mind, and that’s our top priority.”