Consolidated Fire finds fault with grand jury report |

Consolidated Fire finds fault with grand jury report

Matthew Renda
Staff Writer

The embattled Nevada County Consolidated Fire board of directors disagrees with the central premises of a scathing June report issued by the Nevada County Civil Grand Jury that claimed the board fell "woefully short in (its) roles and responsibilities."

Striking a note of defiance intermingled with acknowledgement of "inadvertent mistakes" and promises to rectify deficiencies, the board has crafted a draft response that pointed to a perfect storm of misfortune that led to a perception of a poorly managed fire district.

Factors consisted of a drastically reduced operating budget and the exodus of the entire senior management team, including the fire chief, two battalion chiefs, a division chief, the human resources director and the board secretary within a year period, the board's response states.

Consolidated Fire directors argued they "stepped into the leadership vacuum to provide coaching, experience and support for firefighting staff that had been poorly developed for leadership roles by previous management." The board's response lays blame for apparent administrative dysfunction on departed officials such as Fire Chief Tim Fike and other members of the management staff citing "significant problems in district operations, policies and procedures."

In response to the grand jury's allegation that the board's meetings are characterized by a lack of civility, decorum, respect and common courtesy, the board asserted that "free and open disagreement is the linchpin of democracy."

The board's response struck a particularly strident note when addressing the grand jury's finding regarding "a complete breakdown of organizational structure and chain of command."

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The board accused the grand jury of doing "a grave disservice" and "creating unnecessary doubt in the minds of our community" in regard to the fire district's ability to administer essential emergency services to the community. While Consolidated Fire has been beset by infighting and acrimony among rank and file, administration and directors, all parties have repeatedly asserted the infighting has not impaired operations.

"This district has not faltered in its mission because of the quality of … firefighters who are still delivering incredible emergency service to our constituents, saving lives, delivering babies, extinguishing wildfires with the confidence of excellent training and well seasoned experience," the response states.

The board's response agreed with several of the findings, including the need for a comprehensive policy and procedures manual. The response said officials began addressing the lack in February.

Also, the board acknowledged it did not fully heed its legal counsel, Jim Curtis, and vowed to use legal advice to avoid open meeting law violations and procedural errors.

"There is no question that both as individuals and as a board, we have made inadvertent mistakes," the response reads. "Recognizing the need, legal counsel for the district is now more actively engaged in all areas of board activity. The seven directors … fully recognize the need to improve and continue their commitment to do so."

Some of the more damning aspects of the grand jury report dealt with a lack of transparency, as it openly accused the board of acting in secrecy and attempting to keep the district's issues from constituents.

The board, which has recently taken steps to form advisory committees comprised of citizens and make elements of its budget more comprehensible to the public, further emphasized its commitment to transparency in its response to the grand jury.

"The board is adamant in its desire to create a district that is transparent to our constituents and community, as well as fair and supportive of our employees," the response states.

To contact Staff Writer Matthew Renda, email or 530-477-4239.

The recall effort

Former Nevada County Consolidated Fire District Human Resources Director Lisa LaBarbera has continued to garner signatures in an effort to have Director Keith Grueneberg recalled.

In her latest blog post on, LaBarbera thanked those who contributed to her effort to collect signatures at the Nevada County Fair.

“We are pleased to announce (more than) 600 signatures were gathered over the four-day event,” the post reads. “We are getting much closer to our target number and truly hope Grueneberg will consider resigning before we file our petition, thus saving NCCFD election costs upwards of $50,000.

LaBarbera said the goal is to collect about 4,500 signatures from registered voters living within Consolidated Fire’s jurisdiction.

LaBarbera must collect 4,388 signatures by Oct. 1. If an election were to take place, it would feature two “contests” — the recall vote and, if Grueneberg is recalled, a candidate for the open seat must be chosen.

Grueneberg dismissed the recall effort as frivolous and personally motivated.

“Decisions are made by a majority of the Board; no director can act alone,” he said in his response.

LaBarbera also formally submitted an application to serve on Consolidated Fire’s newly formed Citizens’ Oversight Committee, which is charged with tracking the money generated from the tax initiative passed in 2012 and making recommendations from the board.

Fred Buhler, who questioned the restoration of merit increases to firefighters less than six months following the passage of the tax initiative and Linda Chaplin, who has been a consistent and vocal critic of the fire district, also submitted applications.

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