Closed fire service meeting prompts concern
January 24, 2014
The public is questioning the need for secrecy surrounding a pivotal fire meeting that could alter the fire service landscape in western Nevada County, while the meeting's mediator said closed doors are necessary for honest and productive discussion.
Members from all of the western Nevada County fire districts are expected to attend a nearly three-hour meeting at the Eric Rood Administrative Center to talk about the need to combat declining revenues by enhancing collaboration between districts, while simultaneously considering a merger of two or more agencies.
Discussions in the meeting could potentially alter the configuration of fire services in the western portion of the county, and at least one resident feels the public should be represented during the proceedings.
"There is no reason (the press) should not be at the meeting to report to the people of Nevada County about what is going on," said Bob Goar in an interview last week.
Goar has since consulted with attorneys and found that it is legal for members of disparate districts and boards to meet behind closed doors, as long as no quorum is established, but questioned the need for secrecy.
"Had it been a violation of the Brown Act, I'd be jumping up and down," Goar said.
Nevada County Consolidated Fire District Board Director Keith Grueneberg also expressed concern about the closed nature of the meeting.
"If board members are involved, I would just encourage that they say it is an open meeting because when we start doing things in secret, you know Mrs. Smith our taxpayer out there is going to start to wonder why is it so important to meet in secret," Grueneberg said during the Thursday regular meeting.
Supervisor Hank Weston, who has been appointed the mediator tasked with leading and facilitating discussions between the different fire districts, said Monday that a closed door meeting is necessary to give participants a chance to offer frank assessments of the current state of the service and the impediments that stand in the way of collaboration and merger.
"I think people will be more honest with some of the reasons they will be reluctant to participate," Weston said, adding the meeting will be an opportunity for some to "vent their spleen."
Several of the board members from area fire districts sit on the board of the Nevada County Fire Agency. If a number sufficient to establish a quorum attends Wednesday's meeting, it technically becomes a meeting of the agency and is subject to the laws governing open meetings including the Brown Act.
Weston said he has been careful to instruct the various districts to send only the delegates who would not create conflicts with open meeting laws.
The meeting is very preliminary and is designed to gauge the interest of the attendees, Weston said. When and if fire districts begin to consider wholesale changes to a given district, the directors must involve the public.
Most every fire district will be represented at Wednesday's meeting, as officials are slated to discuss the possibility of merging multiple fire districts under the banner of a single western county fire authority with one chief leading one administration.
The meeting was precipitated by an era of consistently declining revenues for most of the fire districts in the region, coupled with the vacancy or potential vacancy at the fire chief position for several of the largest departments.
Consolidated Fire Chairman Warren Knox began talking about the need to shave off administrative overhead to be able to retain more firefighters on the ground about a year and a half ago, although the idea has been brought up, discarded and resurrected multiple times over the last 30 years.
Weston — and a 1992 independent study funded by the Nevada County Board of Supervisors — said the largest impediment to a consummating a deal to effect a county-wide fire agency is fire chiefs looking to hold onto their jobs and board members looking to cleave to their power.
To contact Staff Writer Matthew Renda, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4239.
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