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Paso's two fire chiefs leave the city

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A month after the Paso Robles City Council heard a report that its emergency services department is severely understaffed, longtime Fire Chief Ken Johnson announced his retirement, effective March 2017.

Johnson headed the department for 15 years.

“Our department’s services are much improved from when I arrived thanks to the commitment of our community and earlier councils,” Johnson said in an email. “The Great Recession certainly challenged our capabilities to continue performing at the level we’d earlier achieved, but did not break us.”

Johnson said he decided to retire following the sudden departure of Paso Battalion Chief Keith Aggson, who on Dec. 30 left for a deputy fire chief position in San Luis Obispo. Johnson and Aggson were the only fire chiefs for the city with a population of 31,000.

Both chiefs’ decisions to leave were tied to the city’s unwillingness to boost personnel in the department during the upswing from the recession—despite repeated requests.

“The newest employee was hired in 2007,” Johnson said. “We remain 7.5 positions lighter than approved in 2008.”

In city budget discussions last summer, Johnson requested an additional two battalion chiefs for the department. He said his recommendations were, “summarily rejected” while at the same time “other city vacancies and new positions were approved.” 

In December, consulting firm CityGate Associates presented a report to the City Council confirming the department’s staffing issues. According to the report, two supervisorial chiefs were “seriously insufficient” for a city of Paso’s size. In response, the City Council scheduled a public workshop on Jan. 12 to discuss the topic further.

With the loss of Johnson and Aggson, that workshop has been postponed.

Paso Robles Mayor Steve Martin told New Times the city will hire two interim chiefs to buy some time to find permanent replacements. He said the City Council will continue discussing a long-term plan for the department.

“I’m sorry to see [Johnson] go,” Martin said. “We’re going to do an in-depth look at the needs for fire services in the city.”

Martin said Johnson’s departure follows a recent trend in the city where department heads, including the city manager, public works director, community development director, and, now, the fire chief, have retired.

“It’s kind of a big challenge, but one we’ve met very well,” Martin said.

Johnson said he wasn’t planning on retiring so soon. He had hoped to work with Aggson to build up the department to better serve Paso Robles, a city growing along with North County’s tourism industry.

“I expected Aggson to play a key role in that transition,” Johnson said. “With his seemingly early departure and need to fill the vacancy, I considered it right to step aside.”

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