West Baton Rouge fire chief resigns; assistant chief promoted _lowres

Charles Stephens

West Baton Rouge Parish’s first fire chief has decided to walk away from the position less than a year after he was appointed.

Officials said Monday they suspect Charles K. Stephens may have found the position too challenging as the parish continues to work out the kinks of consolidating its six fire subdistricts. But officials were still shocked the more than 20-year firefighter veteran submitted his resignation letter to Parish President Riley “Pee Wee” Berthelot before the fire district’s Board of Commissioner’s meeting Thursday.

Stephens, whose appointment from Berthelot was unanimously approved by the Parish Council in February, declined to comment on the matter Monday.

But in his Jan. 8 resignation letter, Stephens wrote, “The recent reorganization has changed things for me and I feel I can better serve West Baton Rouge Parish Fire District 1 in alternative ways.”

Berthelot already has named the parish’s Assistant Fire Chief Kenny Hunts as Stephens’ replacement.

Hunts, a former Brusly firefighter, has worked as a firefighter in the West Baton Rouge Parish area for more than 20 years.

Until the parish can seat the three members of its Civil Service Board, Berthelot still holds the appointing authority over the position, parish officials said.

“Charles is a good person,” Berthelot said Monday. “There is still a lot he can contribute to the department.”

Before he was named fire chief, Stephens served as the assistant fire chief for the Port Allen Fire Department, where he had worked 20 years.

Stephens’ base salary as fire chief was $74,512 annually.

Gary Spillman, chairman of the fire district’s Board of Commissioners, said on Monday that Stephens’ resignation took him by surprise, but it wasn’t a complete shock.

“I know being fire chief is a stressful job — being that this is a new thing: us becoming one fire department,” he said. “I think it was all just kind of overwhelming for him.”

Stephens’ resignation happened before the parish could seat the three members of its newly created Civil Service Board.

Parish officials said in December they hoped to swear-in the individuals for service in early January, after the job descriptions and pay scale for the fire district’s 19 paid full-time firefighters were approved by the Office of State Examiners.

Spillman said he knew Stephens was in the middle of outlining those job descriptions when he quit.

One of the functions of civil service boards is establishing competitive exams, which are administered by the Office of State Examiners. The results are used to rank employees for promotions.

“I’ve been wanting to get the Civil Service Board put together from the beginning of the consolidation in case something like this happened,” Spillman said. “If we had a board, we’d have a working test and a list of people qualified to step in to the position.”

“Right now, we don’t have anything set up,” he said.

Creation of the board was part of the parish’s July 1 consolidation of its six fire subdistricts in Port Allen, Addis, Brusly, Lobdell, Erwinville and Rosehill. The merger was a state legislative solution to a protracted fight between West Baton Rouge Parish officials and the fire subdistricts over more than $2 million in sales tax revenue.

Berthelot appeared confident in Hunt’s ability to lead the consolidation efforts going forward.

“The new chief is already working on the department organizational chart,” he said. “He should be getting that done in the next month or so.”

Follow Terry Jones on Twitter, @tjonesreporter.