Pinehurst VFD replaces suspended fire chief

Pinehurst VFD replaces suspended fire chief

After Pinehurst city leaders unanimously decided to suspend Fire Chief Grady Gray on Tuesday, Dec. 14, 2010, from his duties in the volunteer fire department and as the city’s code enforcement officer, both posts were in need of staffing. It wasn’t until this month, however, that those positions were filled.

Pinehurst elected leaders suspended Gray in December pending the outcome of an investigation launched by the City of Pinehurst Volunteer Fire Department, an investigation that eventually made its way to the Orange County District Attorney’s Office. Gray, who was also employed by the municipality in the Code Enforcement department, was suspended from his city post with pay until the investigation was complete. Before charges could be filed on the fire chief, Gray resigned from the post with the fire department, as well as his paid position with the city.

The city suspension followed a unanimous vote for suspension by volunteer fire department members. In a letter given to members of the Pinehurst City Council and Mayor T.W. Permenter in December, interim Fire Chief Jeremy Tidwell briefly explained the opinion of the fire department volunteers.

“The members of this fire department voted unanimously for this action of suspension that went into effect on Thursday, Dec. 9,” it read. “The suspension will last until the investigation has been concluded and at that time the members of the volunteer fire department will meet again and re-evaluate his status.”

Although the letter to the council reps didn’t reveal the cause of the investigation, Permenter said missing items from the department are what prompted the scrutiny of Gray. The mayor was unsure whether Gray was under criminal investigation, but Pinehurst Police Chief Fred Hanauer said the county’s district attorney was called in to investigate the matter. No charges have been levied against Gray thus far.

Pinehurst City Administrator Robert Ewart said Gray was under no scrutiny for his work at the city office, and the city had no qualms with the code enforcement officer other than the grievance brought to the council by the Pinehurst Volunteer Fire Department. Furthermore, he said, Gray left of his own volition.

“It was his decision to resign. I don’t know why he did it; I couldn’t say,” Ewart said. “He was not forced out, or even asked to resign. That was his own idea.”

With Gray’s resignation, the city was free to select new personnel to fill the vacated post of code enforcement officer. The selection of the fire chief was left in the hands of the volunteer department’s members.

“All we need to do is go along with (the volunteer fire department heads’) recommendations,” Permenter said when announcing the new fire chief and assistant fire chief. “I think they’ve ironed out what they need to do.”

Replacing Gray will be interim Fire Chief Tidwell, and J.B. Lanting was named assistant fire chief. Tidwell, who has been with the department for nine years, served for two years as the assistant fire chief in a department responsible for hundreds of calls for service annually with a crew of just 16. Lanting is a five-year veteran of the Pinehurst VFD and has also served the McLewis VFD.

City officials selected Henry Vine to replace Gray as code enforcement officer starting Monday, Feb. 14, Ewart said.

In what was a surprise to many this past week, Ewart also announced the departure of a city employee – himself. An emotional Ewart expressed sadness in leaving his post at the city but added that he is excited to pursue other interests in retirement.

“I regret leaving at a time when there are so many project going on,” Ewart lamented, but conceded that there is never going to be a time when there are no projects in the works. “I just think it’s time for me to pursue other interests. Now the city can find them a young guy with lots of vinegar in him to finish this out.”

Ewart, who started his city government career in 1979 and joined Pinehurst as its chief administrator in 2009, will retire in May.Jennifer Johnson can be reached at (409) 832-1400, ext. 231, or by e-mail at jennifer [at] theexaminer [dot] com.