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Analysis: Time of transition strikes friction between Boise’s mayor and (former?) fire chief

The Sundance Company

NEWS ANALYSIS

The political transition at Boise City Hall might be over in title, but not in function.

Lauren McLean became mayor in January, replacing 16-year incumbent Dave Bieter. In the weeks since McLean worked to reshape pieces of the political machinery in Boise.

Several Bieter loyalists in the mayor’s office resigned right before the transition. At least one other staffer was given severance a few weeks later. McLean publicly pushed for Bieter to leave the city’s urban renewal agency.

And now, a back and forth with the city’s longtime fire chief.

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Early this week, KBOI2 broke news that Dennis Doan went on administrative leave. Doan, who served with the city for more than 12 years, would no longer lead one of the city’s largest departments.

McLean and city staff remained mum about the situation, citing federal law on personnel matters. Tuesday, the mayor issued a statement naming an interim chief but didn’t say anything further on what happened with Doan.

But, information abhors a vacuum.

Doan’s news conference

Doan held a news conference on the steps of Boise City Hall Wednesday and, to borrow a phrase, added some fuel to the fire.

Doan lauded the work of Boise’s firefighters. He thanked Bieter for his support and for appointing him.

He told the media he met with McLean, not mentioning her by name, and said he intended to retire at the end of May.

“We had a very nice meeting,” Doan said. He said he wanted to “set the record straight,” and emphasized that he did nothing wrong. “It was not discipline. I was never accused of doing anything wrong. Being put on leave was not for cause of anything.”

I asked Doan if he thought the leave of absence was political.

“You’ll have to ask her.”

McLean, through a spokesperson, reiterated that the city can’t comment.

But an hour later, Doan posted an image of a letter he said he received via text. The small metaphorical fire quickly grew larger.

“After my announcement today that I would retire at the end of May, I received this letter via text. The Mayor is going to ask the Council to fire me in a public meeting rather than let me retire. #boisekind”

The timeline

The letter, on City of Boise letterhead, lays out a timeline of events. It says he met with the mayor and an HR spokesperson Monday morning to “discuss separation options from the City.” The letter said Doan asked to negotiate, and rejected the offer. The letter said he then reconsidered and the city gave him three weeks to evaluate the separation agreement. HR director Kelcey Stewart wrote in the letter that they told Doan they could also pull back the severance offer during that 21 day period.

The HR letter said McLean and Doan again met Wednesday morning, and he asked to retire effective May 29th, as he said later at the news conference. When the city asked if Doan wanted to put that into a separation agreement, the letter said he declined. It says McLean would consider it and get back to Doan.

Two hours later, Doan held his news conference.

Then, according to the letter, the city decided to pull back the offer. It said it would put the matter to a “public vote,” and cited Boise City Code.

That would put the action to the City of Boise’s new council slate.

Echo of history

Boise’s been through this before.

In 2004, after Bieter became mayor after an interim period following the resignation of Brent Coles, Bieter asked for the resignation of Boise Police Chief Don Pierce.

With different circumstances (Pierce led an investigation into Coles that failed to turn up issues later uncovered by the media and Idaho Attorney General), Pierce resigned.

While McLean hasn’t said why she apparently asked Doan to leave his post, Doan’s answer on politics could be instructive.

Bieter and Doan

Doan has long been a significant Bieter supporter. Beyond donations he made directly to Bieter’s campaigns, he has worked behind the scenes and supported the former mayor’s messaging.

Last spring, during a break in a Boise City Council meeting, I wondered aloud to Doan if Bieter would draw a significant challenger in the mayor’s race. This was before McLean, Coles or ACHD Commissioner Rebecca Arnold announced their candidacies.

“It’s too late,” he said according to my notes from the conversation. He went on to say Bieter had such a large fundraising advantage that he wouldn’t be beatable. A large part of that money came from fire unions – not just in Boise, but around the region and nation.

While Doan (disclosure: my former neighbor) served primarily as a city employee and fire chief, he’s also a politician. He serves on the Boise School Board, a seat he won last year. When I produced a piece last summer on Bieter’s political connections, Doan said, jokingly, he was surprised he wasn’t on the map.

What comes next?

So to that question I asked Doan. Was it political? While we only have Doan’s side of the story, for the most part, it looks that way.

It’s the next chapters that will be interesting. Does Doan’s personnel situation go to the “public vote” of the council? If so, it will require each member of the city council to make a public decision on who to back.

For the most part, Boise’s line firefighters aren’t wrapped up in the politics. It might surprise casual observers that the chief is.

What does Doan do next? He’s only 51 and noted that he was born in Boise and hopes to stay here. One-time acting Boise Police Chief, Jim Tibbs, decided to challenge Bieter at the ballot box when he was passed over for the full-time gig. Does Doan seek office beyond the school board?

And in four years, when we’re gearing up for another political cycle, where do the thousands of dollars from fire unions near and far go?

This week’s metaphorical fire will eventually be put out. But what comes next could be just as interesting.

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