PROVO — Three Provo fire chiefs are endorsing Mayor Lewis Billings instead of one of their own — Billings' challenger in next week's election, retired firefighter Dave Bailey.

Former chiefs Bill Blair and Rod Jones and current Chief Coy Porter served as Bailey's bosses and knew him during his career. They outlined their concerns about Bailey's ability to run the city in a campaign mailer they signed and approved for distribution over the weekend by Billings' re-election committee.

The mailer drew strong reactions from Bailey, a former captain who worked for Provo for 30 years, and retired Deputy Chief Mike Bledsoe, a member of Bailey's campaign advisory staff.

Bailey said the endorsements have created a rift in the fire department, which he said overwhelming supports his campaign.

"Lewis is really desperate, and I'm really sorry for the families being put through this," Bailey said. "This is going to be a strange Christmas party this year."

Bledsoe used far stronger language, attacking Billings for using "derogatory and insidious statements." Those comments are part of a statement he said will run in newspaper ads over the next few days.

Blair, who served as chief from 1987-92 and 1997-99, said Bailey steered away from tough issues and confrontation. "The biggest question in my own mind is — if Dave is elected who is actually going to run the city? I know from my years of experience of working with Dave that it is not going to be him.

"He may have the title and sit in the mayor's office, but someone else will be the moving force behind a Bailey administration. The question is — who will that be? What are their qualifications? What do they stand for?"

Jones was chief from 1992-97 and has known Bailey from the day Bailey joined the Provo Fire Department.

"I just haven't seen him show the qualities or the abilities to lead the city of Provo," said Jones. whose wife is a Provo employee.

Porter said Bailey was content as a captain and never attempted to become a battalion chief.

"I saw only lackluster efforts on his part to make any attempts to advance and become an invaluable member of the department," Porter said.

He added, "His choice of fire stations to work at have always been those which, on average, responded to the least number of calls over the period of a year."

Bledsoe attacked the statements as inconsistent with the way the men treated Bailey when he worked for them. Blair named Bailey the 1988 Fire Officer of the Year, the fire department's highest honor. Jones gave Bailey the same honor in 1992. "That was unprecedented," Bailey said. "Nobody has ever gotten Fire Officer of the Year two times."

Bledsoe said Porter presented Bailey as the Provo employee of the month in April 2002, making Bailey the fire department's nominee for city employee of the year.

"To then insinuate someone's career was lackluster after issuing those awards is pretty defaming, I think," Bledsoe told the Deseret Morning News. Bledsoe said Porter must have had no choice but to support Billings. Billings fired three department heads in 2001 and forced the resignation of two others — the fire and police chiefs.

Porter said he wasn't coerced.

"Nothing could be farther from the truth. I visited with the mayor early on and asked what I could do to help."

He said the decision wasn't too difficult because he is in his 29th year in the department and retirement benefits max out after 30 years.

"I told the mayor I'm a short-timer anyway," Porter said. "Even if the mayor won, I'll likely retire during his next term. I'm more concerned about the long-term future of the city."

Blair expects Bailey to make Bledsoe the fire chief if he wins the election. He also said that he, Jones and Porter carefully chose their words to not demean Bailey.

In fact, Bailey said he considers all three men his friends, saying he had golfed with Blair and that he also believed Porter had no choice but to endorse his boss.

But Blair said the bottom line was that while he called Bailey "the nicest guy in the world," the trio believed Billings is a better choice.

"(Bailey) wants to run the city of Provo, and he hasn't prepared to run the city of Provo," Blair said.

Bledsoe also decried the tactics of the Billings campaign, saying they smacked of the mudslinging Billings has said Bailey supporters were guilty of.

"Mr. Billings, you have single-handedly fulfilled your own prediction that this could become the ugliest race in the history of Provo," Bledsoe said in a statement. "If Mayor Billings believes he can use his position to discredit someone as exemplary as Dave Bailey, no one is safe under his administration.

"By exercising your dominion in this manner, all I can say is, shame on you Mr. Billings, shame on you."

Bailey said he is willing to allow scrutiny of the performance evaluations given him by Blair, Jones and Porter.

"Open them up and read them," he said. "That's the place to get it. From all three of these guys. Coy Porter filled them out on me for several years. Nothing but wonderful reviews."