Craig Fire Board President Byron Willems under fire after boycotting local businesses

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— The Craig Rural Fire Protection Board is facing heat again, but this time internally.

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Byron Willems

Byron Willems, president of the fire board, used his Facebook page to encourage a boycott against certain businesses in town, creating an uproar that led board members to consider a no-confidence vote on his leadership.

“I called for the board members to take a no-confidence vote if they wanted to (at the special meeting Tuesday) and they asked that we delay it until the Thursday meeting,” board member Chris Nichols said. Willems “is entitled to his own personal opinion, as all of us are, but not when it can be construed as the voice of the fire district or fire department.”

This year was a tough election cycle for incumbents on the board. Craig resident Bruce Timberg ran against three sitting board members — Nichols, John Forgay and Tony Maneotis — on a contentious platform. Timberg said the board was deceitful and even made claims of corruption. The board countered the platform, saying it kept its meetings open and minutes available. Board members reached out to the community for support and saw an overwhelming voter turnout. Four times as many residents voted in last week’s board election compared to 2012.

But immediately following the election, Byron Willems, president of the board, lashed out in a Facebook post against Timberg and encouraged Craig residents to boycott businesses that supported the candidate.

In turn, the community lashed out at the board and fire department.

“I don’t think that was a time or a way to make a stand,” Forgay said.

John Ponikvar, owner of T&H Napa Auto Parts, was one of the businesses Willems called to boycott on Facebook, but he said he never publicly supported Timberg. He just allowed the candidate to put his sign in T&H Auto Parts’ window.

“I’ve always allowed anyone to put up a sign who wanted to do it,” he said.

Ponikvar said he was concerned about Willems’ conduct.

“I think he brings a lot of good things because of his knowledge and years on the fire department,” he said. “But at the same time, I think he needs to temper his opinion and work with people a bit better.”

At the Tuesday meeting, Willems said he would not apologize for the statements he made but that he would accept whatever the board decided.

“If the board wants me to take a leave, I’ll take a leave,” he said. “I’m at peace with what I said.”

Nichols said that Willems’ statement was damaging to the reputation of the board.

“That makes the public feel like we’re some good ol' boys and above reproach,” he said.

But Nichols acknowledged they had no authority to remove him from the board. Willems would need to voluntarily resign or be recalled. The board could ask Willems to take three excused absences from meetings in place of a suspension.

“The board doesn’t really have a power to sanction another member or do anything of that nature,” Nichols said.

Willems said he did not want his statements to have a negative impact on the fire board or department but that he wasn’t in a position to make decisions about what action to take regarding his position there.

“They’re basically saying they don’t agree with my stance, and that’s fine. They should distance themselves,” he said. “If they believe it’s the best thing for the fire department for me to resign, I’ll do it.”

At the Tuesday meeting, the board adopted a new social media policy to prevent incidents like this one from happening again.

“No board member (can use) social media postings or entries that could be construed to hold the district or the department in a negative context,” Nichols said, reading from the statement.

The board also came out against the statements Willems said and added that they were not the opinions of the board or the fire department.

Ponikvar said Willems should leave his post.

“If he’s lost the confidence of the board, which it appears he has — if he’s lost the confidence of the firefighters, which I believe he has, he should resign,” he said.

The board will meet at 7 p.m. Thursday at the fire department and take a no-confidence vote on Willems, who has been president for eight years and a board member for 12 years.

Nichols, who has been on the board for six years, said this was a new and unwelcome experience for him.

“This is uncharted territory for me,” he said. “I’ve never been involved in the potential for a no-confidence vote or even asking for the resignation of another member.”

Contact Erin Fenner at 970-875-1794 or efenner@CraigDailyPress.com.

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