Jim Ponkauskas named interim Janesville fire chief

·3 min read

Jul. 30—JANESVILLE — Janesville Fire Department Deputy Chief Jim Ponkauskas has been named interim chief of the fire department as the current chief, Ernie Rhodes, plans to leave next month.

City Police and Fire Commission member Tim Lindau confirmed the commission moved Wednesday to name Ponkauskas interim chief after Rhodes announced his pending resignation after holding the department's top post for two years.

Rhodes wrote last week in a letter to Janesville City Manager Mark Freitag that Rhodes intends to resign effective Aug. 18.

Rhodes is taking a new job as fire chief in Clayton, Missouri, a small city in suburban St. Louis.

The commission's decision upholds a recommendation Freitag made publicly last week that Ponkauskas should be appointed interim chief while the commission decides how it will pursue hiring or naming a new chief.

It will be the third time in a six-year span that Janesville faces finding a new fire chief and the second time in three years Ponkauskas will serve as interim chief. Ponkauskas served in 2018 as interim chief when former chief Randy Banker retired.

Lindau said the commission got positive recommendations from city staff on the work Ponkauskas has done as deputy chief of the fire department's operations division and in previous roles.

On Thursday, Lindau said Ponkauskas agreed to be interim chief. He said the commission still hasn't decided whether it will launch a national search for a new chief or if the city would look inward to promote existing fire department leadership to the top post.

Lindau said discussions on a search likely will move forward in August.

"Fortunately, Jim has always been an incredible team player. We feel very confident with the direction of the fire department certainly under his leadership, certainly an interim basis," Lindau said. "So I don't think there is a huge rush (to hire a new chief). We appreciate that Jim will give us some time to figure it out."

Ponkauskas has climbed department ranks in five different roles since he started in Janesville's fire department in 1994.

A former firefighter, medic and chief of the Orfordville Fire Protection District, Ponkauskas has worked in firefighting since 1988. Prior to being deputy chief, Ponkauskas has served in Janesville as a pump operator, lieutenant, captain and battalion chief.

Janesville and Milton's fire departments operate under a partnership that has put Janesville's fire chief at the helm of Milton's fire department since 2017. The partnership is set to expire next year, and it is part of a complex set of discussions that have taken place since last year about how to provide fire coverage to the city of Milton and several surrounding towns.

Ponkauskas took the helm of Milton's fire department while he served as Janesville's interim chief in 2018.

An official for the union that represents fire department employees said last week that it's likely whoever is named interim chief would be tapped as Milton's interim fire chief, too.

Lindau said Janesville's police and fire commission is authorized only to name an interim chief of that city's fire department. He said it is not in the commission's purview to map out how an interim chief would handle duties under a partnership with Milton.

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