RIO COMMUNITIES—Despite receiving a termination letter from the Rio Communities city manager last week, Rio Grande Estates Fire Chief Nathan Gonzales is still on duty.

Gonzales, who was elected chief by the members of the fire department last December, said he was shocked when he received the email from Rio Communities City Manager Leisa Haynes last Tuesday.

“I was dumbfounded,” Gonzales said. “Every report I’ve given to the city council has always been transparent and I’ve always told them what was going on with the department. Our biggest adversity, to this point, has been with the city.”

Haynes couldn’t be reached for comment as city staff informed the News-Bulletin she was attending a conference.

According to the letter emailed to the fire chief on Oct. 15, Haynes wrote that his “employment as the Fire Chief for the City of Rio Communities has been terminated with cause as a result of your conduct. No confidence in your abilities as our fire chief.”

After receiving the email, Gonzales said he immediately replied to Haynes, writing he did not accept the termination. He also filed a grievance against the city manager with the city council, protesting his termination.

“… RGEFD disputes that members of the volunteer fire department are city employees. Not one penny is expended by the city, neither for pay or compensation to its members nor for operation of the RGEFD.”

Mayor Pro Tem Peggy Gutjahr, who is taking the reigns as mayor since Mayor Mark Gwinn is taking medical leave until January, said she nor the other councilors were informed by Haynes she was sending the fire chief a letter of termination, even though the city manager wrote, … “The Council is offering you the chance to resign now or you will be terminated …”

Gutjahr also said the city is working to find a solution to the problem.

“We are working through this and trying to find a way to resolve it,” Gutjahr said on Monday. “The city’s attorney is involved and the council is going to talk about the fire chief and city manager in executive session (Tuesday night).”

Gutjahr said she has several questions for the attorney, including whether the volunteer firefighters are employees of the city.

While the city of Rio Communities acts as the fiscal agent for the RGEFD, the department is funded by state fire funds, and the firefighters receive a small stipend from a Valencia County mill levy to compensate for out-of-pocket expenses associated with volunteer service.

Since last year, the Rio Communities City Council has been discussing hiring a full-time, paid fire chief, and approved funding for the position in this year’s budget. The council also discussed the job description of a paid fire chief at its workshop Tuesday.

“We will be looking at several examples of job descriptions at the workshop, one of them from the fire department,” Gutjahr said.

Even though the council is looking to replace the volunteer fire chief position with a paid chief, Gonzales said 17 of its 18 members in attendance at a meeting last week voted to keep the department as an all-volunteer force.

The fire chief said the department has had ongoing issues with this and the past administration regarding requested purchase orders, saying many have not been approved for unknown reasons.

“I’ve been trying to do my best to push the station forward,” Gonzales said. “We perform a valuable service … I always tell our EMTs and firefighters that this isn’t about volunteering, because there are real repercussions. Since I started as chief, I’ve developed a training structure in the station.”

Gonzales says he’s not sure what will happen next, but he’s hoping to continue as he’s always has. He does write in his grievance to the council that he “demands a formal apology from the city manager for undue stress, and derogatory statements made in regard to my health and/or physical ability.”

Gonzales was diagnosed earlier this year with scoliosis, which has hindered his ability to fight fires and perform other duties. He says while his diagnosis is bothersome, he was still able to graduate with an associate degree in structural firefighting this summer.

“I’ve been an instructor since 2010, and what I love most about this department is the educational opportunities I can provide,” Gonzales said. “I know how to fire fight and save lives, but what’s better is the fact I can teach others what I know.”

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Clara Garcia is the editor and publisher of the Valencia County News-Bulletin.
She is a native of the city of Belen, beginning her journalism career at the News-Bulletin in 1998 as the crime and courts reporter. During her time at the paper, Clara has won numerous awards for her writing, photography and typography and design both from the National Newspaper Association and the New Mexico Press Association.