PVFR members ride through Patagonia as part of the 4th of July parade. Photo by Marion Vendituoli

Members of the Patagonia Volunteer Fire and Rescue Company (PVFR) elected officers for a one-year term at their June 4 general meeting. Ike Isakson was re-elected as chief, a position he has held since 2016. “This will be my last year as Chief,” Ike Isakson said. “I’ll still be here, just not as Chief. This department is my life.”

Tim Regan, who has been with the department since 2019, was elected as Assistant Chief. Justin McEldowney was re-elected as Secretary/Treasurer, Zay Hartigan was elected as Fire Captain, Marc Meredith as Medical Chief, and Ariel Kryzs as Medical Captain.

The June election followed months of turmoil at PVFR, fueled by rumors, anger, and speculation concerning bylaws, board members, department officers, and perceived inappropriate behavior toward women.

Problems arose when some members of the department felt that there had been inadequate notification of the intent to nominate and elect Board members at the Sept. 4, 2022 general meeting. (General meetings are held on the first Sunday of each month.) Attendance was low, as many members were spending the Labor Day holiday with their families. At that meeting, board members Bob Ollerton, Denise Bowdon, Ivan Mingura and new members Eric Herman and Todd Norton were elected to the Board.

Board meetings are held each month on the Tuesday before the general meeting. At the November Board meeting, the Board decided to hold an election of department officers in January, 2023. This was an unusual move, according to Chief Isakson, as there had not been an election in 35 years, except for the one held after the passing of Chief John Ashcraft in 2016.

The vote for department officers took place on Jan. 8, 2023. Chief Isakson was reelected, but later in January the Board voided the election. They were concerned that the bylaws had not been properly followed after objections were raised that some members should not have been allowed to vote. At the Feb. 28 Board meeting, however, “It was decided that in good faith everyone on the roster is a member, and that better records should be kept going forward to determine who meets the criteria to vote,” according to Herman.

“I do feel there was an effort to remove me from office,” Isakson said, referring to the push to void the January election. “This has taken a personal toll.” Some members of the department also felt that the vote was an effort to oust Isakson and replace him with another member of the department. Denise Bowdon, at that point still a Board member, adamantly denied this in an interview with the PRT, saying that it was simply an effort on the part of the board to follow the bylaws. Bowdon, a member of the department for 23 years, and secretary-treasurer of the Board of Directors, resigned from the Board in January. Board Member Ivan Mingura also resigned.

Dan Goff, who had been with the department for five years, also resigned in January. He cited his dissatisfaction with the Board “for holding a meeting on a holiday weekend to propose nominations for the Board and for holding an election for PVFR officers in December, [as well as] “perceived inappropriate behavior of a Board member toward the partner of a firefighter and Board member, and the election of officers and the subsequent overturning of the election” as his reasons.

Goff is currently working with Santa Cruz County Search and Rescue and with the Benson Fire Department. “I would go back to Patagonia if things change,” he said in January. Goff said recently, “I miss it, the EMS, Emergency Medical Service. Time will tell.”

At the March General Meeting, Justin McEldowney and Michael Young were elected to the Board to fill the vacancies left by Bowdon and Mingura. Current PVFR Board members are President Bob Ollerton, Vice President Michael Young, Secretary-Treasurer Justin McEldowney, Eric Herman and Todd Norton, Public Representative.

A bylaw committee, composed of Chief Isakson, Marc Meredith, Johnny Lopez, Richard Connelly, and Aaron Schreider, was formed last February. The bylaws had been enacted in 1947, hadn’t been updated since, and were out of date. New bylaws were ratified at the May general meeting. “You’ve got to have bylaws,” Isakson said to the PRT. “They just have to be fair to everybody.”

Allegations of inappropriate comments to women also fueled discord in the organization. According to Herman, a Board member allegedly insulted a woman last October at a fundraising barbecue. Given an opportunity to apologize, he declined. Three months later, he did write a letter of apology, Herman said.

Jade DeForest, a PVFR volunteer, also felt that she had been on the receiving end of condescending remarks, having been told by a board member that “women aren’t strong enough to lift” equipment, which she readily lifted. She reported that two other female volunteers had also been told they weren’t strong enough to lift rescue equipment, which again, they capably handled. Of the 35 members in the fire company, eight are women. In a recent interview, DeForest said that the turmoil over the last several months has hurt the department. “I am very concerned,” she said. “We don’t have enough personnel to respond to medical problems. People have backed off, saying ‘We don’t want to get involved in drama or problems.’”

The PVFR is a non-profit organization whose mission is to provide fire protection and emergency response services to the Patagonia community. PVFR, an all-volunteer company for 99 years, responds to medical emergencies, motor vehicle accidents, rescue calls, and incidents involving hazardous materials as well as wildland fires and structure fires. The organization is funded by grants, donations, and by a $65,000 contract with the town of Patagonia for emergency services. The 38 members of the company are all volunteers, in contrast to the Sonoita Elgin Fire Department.

Although there have been recent rumors in Patagonia that the company is looking at morphing into a paid department, Chief Isaakson said, “It’s not going to happen, probably not ever.” Assistant Chief Regan added, “A paid department will not happen in any of our lifetimes. It would be a complete waste of the taxpayers’ money.”

Past and present Board members Bob Ollerton, Todd Norton, and Ivan Mingura all declined to respond to requests from the PRT for comment.