Friends and admirers packed the Cape Coral City Council chambers Monday to bid a fond farewell to Fire Chief Bill van Helden who is leaving the Cape Coral Fire Department that he has led for a decade.
Van Helden was celebrated as a man of great compassion and faith by all who spoke of him at the beginning of the city council's regular meeting at City Hall.
"He is one of the fathers of public safety. He encouraged volunteers to learn," said volunteer Dolores Bertolini, also a former Cape Coral council member.
City Manager John Szerlag said the first call he got upon taking office was from Van Helden, and in the brief time they worked together, Szerlag learned a lot.
"I learned the attribute of compassion from Bill. When my wife got sick, Bill went above and beyond the call and stayed in the hospital with us for three days," Szerlag said. "When I hire a new chief, he'll have the same attributes you have."
Councilmember Lenny Nesta, a 31-year member of the Cape Coral Fire Department who worked with Van Helden, got emotional speaking of his former boss.
"The times I struggled, the chief was there. When I lost my son, the chief was there at the hospital," Nesta said. "Your faith is an inspiration. Thank you."
Van Helden received a banner and numerous standing ovations from the gallery, many of whom were there to discuss a more contentious issue. But they were all in support of the chief who is stepping down.
"I thank God for the privilege of working here. The firefighters are my ministry and they are second to none,' Van Helden said. "This is still the greatest community around. Everyone is passionate here.
Van Helden spent the first part of his firefighting career in Lehigh Acres, where he rose to the rank of deputy chief. He joined the Cape Coral force in 1996. He served as division chief in the administration and operations divisions until his appointment to fire chief and emergency management director in August 2002.
In other business, Van Helden sought for and got medical supplies for the fire department in a consent item for discussion that got put to a vote. The $108,000 measure passed unanimously.
Also, the city gave the green light for Szerlag to create the position of fleet manger for the city official vehicles. The resolution allows for a maximum pay up to $98,000 and $5,000 in moving expenses. The vote was 7-1, with Chris Chulakes-Leetz rejecting the measure.
The city also gave the go-ahead for the police department to purchase a SWAT vehicle for $250,000 in federal funds that came from confiscation of drug money and other such revenue.
Most who commented on the consent item approved the purchase, although one said the money would have been better spent on more police cars.
Councilmember Kevin McGrail said he thought the same way two weeks ago, but after having thought about it, "If it can happen in Newtown, it can happen anywhere. This is an insurance policy the city can't do without."
The agenda item, the lone one pulled for further discussion, passed 6-2, with Mayor John Sullivan and Chulakes-Leetz casting the no votes.