During a special March 9 meeting, the newly appointed Montgomery County Emergency Services District No. 10 board approved selecting a Conroe-based attorney to conduct an investigation regarding employment and fiscal matters in the district and the Magnolia Volunteer Fire Department, which the ESD funds.

ESD No. 10 commissioners vowed to be more transparent and to seek to correct issues related to allegations of misconduct in the MVFD and the district.

“We are going to make this right,” board Vice President Charles McDonald said.

The five new members were approved by Montgomery County Commissioners Court without discussion March 9.

The new appointments and the go-ahead for an investigation come after all five former ESD No. 10 board members resigned from their positions March 5, following a wrongful termination lawsuit filed in January by a former assistant fire chief alleging misconduct in the fire department.

“My recommendation is that you approve the engagement letter with [attorney] Adam Dietrich for him to conduct an investigation of employment matters, fiscal matters of the district and the Magnolia Volunteer Fire Department related to the recent allegations of potential wrongdoing,” said John Peeler, general counsel for the district, to the board.

The allegations

Montgomery County public records indicate Case No. 21-01-00558 was filed Jan. 13 by former Assistant Fire Chief Chuck Grant in the 284th Judicial District Court in Montgomery County. The suit alleges misconduct surrounding the hiring and promotion of MVFD Director of Communications Elisa Noriega, according to the case text. The information states that she was promoted to assistant fire chief in November and that her salary was increased to $142,000.

The case, originally filed against Fire Chief Gary Vincent and the MVFD, was amended Feb. 8 by Grant to also include ESD No. 10, according to public records.

“We’re going to do everything that we can to straighten things out the best we can. You don’t know me from anybody, so what I’m saying you may not believe, or you may not want to believe,” board President Larry Smith said to the public in attendance. “Give us a chance, and over the next few months, I promise you, you will see a difference in attitude and a difference in the way things work. ... You are owed that courtesy, to know where your tax dollars are going and how they’re being spent.”

Following a two-and-a-half-hour closed session, the ESD No. 10 board was advised by Peeler upon reconvening publicly to take no action on potentially settling lawsuits and claims, as listed on the meeting agenda.

Although Vincent was still listed as fire chief on the MVFD's website as of the publication of this story, Peeler claimed Vincent has tendered a retirement letter to the district.

“Chief Vincent did tender a retirement letter over the weekend,” Peeler said.

Montgomery County Precinct 2 Commissioner Charlie Riley, who has been tasked with appointing ESD board members and was absent from the March 9 special meeting, said March 5 that Vincent was on temporary leave.

Vincent deferred questions to his attorney, Monica Fitzgerald, who could not provide comment before publication.

Other items discussed

The board will next meet March 18, at which time it is anticipated to further discuss ESD No. 10 becoming the direct provider of emergency services in the district as opposed to contracting with the MVFD. The board took no action March 9 on the related agenda item.

“I had started discussions with your predecessors at meetings recently that the district really needs to take a hard look at the district being [the] direct provider and direct employer of firefighter personnel, for a number of reasons,” Peeler said to the board. “There’s going to be a lot of need for community outreach and community engagement. ... It’s literally the largest issue that the district, really, can undertake.”

Peeler said a decision to terminate the contract with the fire department would likely result in a restructuring of department operations.

The March 18 meeting will be held at noon at MVFD Station No. 181, located at 18215 Buddy Riley Blvd., Magnolia.

“We’re not going to do anything that can’t be printed in the paper tomorrow and our family would have to hide their faces,” board member Jeff Cunningham said. “That’s our promise.”