Loomis fire chief steps down

Embattled Loomis fire chief and recently installed town Mayor Dave Wheeler is stepping away from the fire post, district officials confirmed Friday.

Wheeler’s retirement from the Loomis Fire Protection District, effective Tuesday, comes as he was facing pressure on two fronts:

• The California Public Employees’ Retirement System, in an audit of the Loomis district, found that Wheeler was unlawfully employed as the fire chief while collecting a pension from another fire district – often referred to as

“double dipping.”

• Local activists, meanwhile, have been challenging Wheeler’s right to serve on the Town Council while holding the fire chief position. The fire district is not part of the town government, but its area overlaps. Because the fire district must sign off on any new developments within its boundaries, the activists say, Wheeler effectively has a veto power that other council members do not have.

John Shearer, who chairs the fire board, scoffed at the suggestion that Wheeler is leaving because of either of the charges.

“We were willing to fight for Dave,” Shearer said. He said the district is contesting the CalPERS finding.

Wheeler declined to talk to The Bee.

Earlier this month, Wheeler was installed as the town’s mayor, despite vocal opposition. Activists Bill Branch and Janet Thew have been leading the effort challenging the legality of Wheeler serving on both bodies since his 2012 campaign for office. In October, they filed an application with the attorney general’s office seeking permission to sue to forcibly remove Wheeler from the fire position job.

Branch said he’s seeking word from his lawyer on what happens with that effort now. As for Wheeler’s claim, reported this week in the Loomis News, that his retirement has been in the works for a year, Branch said he’s not buying it. If Wheeler had been mulling retirement, Branch asked, why he didn’t he circumvent the bitter fight over his seat on the Town Council?

“If that were true, he could have saved the town almost a year of agony,” Branch said.

The issue stirred great emotion among supporters on both sides. On occasion, angry words spilled into the parking lot after Town Council meetings.

Branch said it’s unlikely that the application to the attorney general would have been filed if Wheeler had made it known he would soon step down.

Wheeler took the chief’s post with the one-station district in 2007 after retiring from the Alameda County Fire Department. Wheeler’s pension pays $139,338 per year and his fire district job has averaged $61,000 a year, according to state records.

In an audit report that became public in November, CalPERS found that Wheeler’s service as fire chief became unlawful in 2010, when the Loomis district joined the pension system. The CalPERS report was obtained through a public records request by Branch and Thew.

With Wheeler stepping away, the district will temporarily turn to another retiree, Dave Whitt, formerly of the Lincoln Fire Department. Whitt will work as a short-term volunteer, Shearer said.

The long-term plan may include a partnership with one of the surrounding fire agencies. Shearer said board members are evaluating bids from the Rocklin Fire Department and the South Placer Fire Protection District to support the district during major incidents. He said the district’s staff can handle typical calls, but needs the support of an experienced battalion chief during major incidents.

“Loomis is going to stay Loomis,” Shearer said.