Nevada County Consolidated Fire attempts to get back on track
March 23, 2013
In a lengthy meeting of the Nevada County Consolidated Fire Board of Directors, district officials attempted to move beyond the squabbles, in-fighting and controversy that have plagued the organization in recent months.
Board members accepted the resignation of the chairman, appointed a new chair and pulled five items off the agenda that its lawyer said were improperly placed, while the regular business of the district proceeded.
Keith Grueneberg, who has been the center of controversy in recent weeks, voted against accepting his own resignation letter during the regular meeting.
"I didn't want to resign," he said during a break at the regular meeting of the board. "I resigned under duress."
“I didn’t want to resign. I resigned under duress.”
— Keith Grueneberg, on resignation as chairman of the Nevada County Consolidated Fire Board of Directors
Grueneberg declined to comment further on the matter, saying he was constrained in what he could talk about.
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Directors David Hanson, Warren Knox, Mark Bass and Bob Rhodes voted to accept the resignation. Directors Tom Carrington and Bill Habblett opposed the motion to accept the resignation.
"Keith Grueneberg is a man of honor, and I take umbrage at the way he was treated," said Carrington, who declined to elaborate after the meeting.
The four directors who approved the resignation did not explain the rationale behind their vote.
Wyatt Howell, president of the Local 3800 at Consolidated Fire, said the firefighters overwhelmingly supported Grueneberg as president.
"Losing (Grueneberg's) leadership will likely be detrimental to the taxpayers, the employees and the entire community," Howell said.
Linda Chaplin, who ran unsuccessfully for a position on the board in November and routinely attends board meetings, said she supported Grueneberg stepping down.
"In all the years I have been coming to meetings, the last two years I have witnessed more negativity than all the years prior," she said. "You have done damage to the good name of this district."
Knox was nominated as chairman and approved by a majority vote with Grueneberg and Carrington dissenting. Bob Rhodes was elected as vice chairman. Knox had served as chairman last year as well.
Grueneberg came under heavy scrutiny recently for receiving and sending an email with a subject title "Hooked on Ebonics," which portrayed an African-American substitute teacher mispronouncing common names at a white suburban school.
The body of the email, which was sent to Howell from Grueneberg's district email account, reads: "Hey Wyatt, you need to watch this, it is like talking with our administration!"
Critics of Grueneberg maintain the email was offensive and inappropriate for dissemination at a public entity.
Grueneberg said the video represents communication issues between rank-and-file firefighters and the administration. He further said he forwarded it to a private email and that it was not intended for dissemination on public email accounts.
Knox delivered a statement in front of the board during an agenda item that dealt with possible "sensitivity training" for district employees.
"The video in question by itself has the potential for being perceived as derogatory due to its racial and disparaging slant, and the suggestion that the video is just satire is no excuse for ignoring its potential impact on others," Knox said.
"In addition, the added comments targeting a specific group of individuals within our organization can, without question, be perceived as disparaging and offensive. Finally, the racial overtones to this video have specific potential to offend individuals throughout the district."
Knox further called upon senior management to "review the actions of individual employees to determine if disciplinary action is warranted."
Agenda items removed
The district's legal counsel, Jim Curtis, who has been conspicuously absent from many of the board's meetings over the past year, attended Thursday and had an immediate impact, suggesting the board remove several items he deemed improperly agendized from the proceedings.
One agenda item related to Howell, the union president who is seeking recognition from fire district officials regarding a back injury he said he suffered during a 2008 training incident.
Howell told The Union after the meeting that officials continue to deny the incident took place, and he has been rebuffed by district administration in his quest to procure appropriate medical and psychological treatment for ill-effects from the incident.
During the meeting, Curtis said the agenda item was too broad and should be pulled and dealt with later. Curtis further said he was concerned that discussion of the incident would amount to "stepping on the toes" of the district's workers' compensation provider.
Howell attempted to provide public comment but was silenced by the board, which said the item was being pulled from the agenda. Michelle Howell, Wyatt Howell's wife, also tried to speak publicly about the 2008 incident and the effects it has wrought on her and her family but was silenced.
Another item on the agenda, which read "discussion and possible action regarding payment of Check No. 238380" and did not have any supporting documents was pulled by the board.
Grueneberg took responsibility for the presence of the item on the agenda, but little explanation was provided to the public, drawing the ire of some in attendance.
"This is the fifth agenda item that wasn't proposed right," said Randall Gross, a firefighter in attendance. "What is going on? I am embarrassed for you guys. Something is not right — it is just not right."
Chaplin also expressed dismay.
"I would like to reaffirm this is a public meeting, and the public has an interest in what is going on here," she said. "We elected you to represent our interests. This is not a club. This is the public's business."
Finally, another item, dealing with the district's website links, was removed from the agenda for being too general. The supporting documents provided by Grueneberg specifically state the board should look at removing a link to YubaNet.com from its website, claiming YubaNet "reports information concerning the fire district which is often inaccurate, one-sided and misleading to the public."
YubaNet.com first reported the incident regarding the email sent by Grueneberg to Howell.
Aside from addressing the more controversial issues, Director Dave Hanson said the district is making significant progress on the Joint Operating Agreement with Nevada City and Grass Valley.
Hanson said he met with the other entities March 7, and consensus was reached that the JOA is "extremely important and is the best way to run the business."
Hanson said the district will strive to include the cities in the evaluation process of hiring a new chief with the hopes of reaching a cost-sharing agreement.
Acting Chief David Ray is scheduled to retire April 30.
The district has established a deadline of April 15, by which it hopes to receive applications for the fire chief position, Hanson said.
In the meantime, with Ray on vacation, the district will rely on its two battalion chiefs, Jerry Funk and Jim Turner, both of whom were recently promoted, to fill in as acting chief.
The district had contemplated contracting with Penn Valley Fire District Chief Gene Vander Plaats or Grass Valley Fire Department Chief Tony Clarabut but instead will rely on both men to supply guidance as it transitions to a permanent replacement for Tim Fike, who parted ways with the district last summer.
Treasurer Mark Bass reported the district is on pace to spend what it projected for its 2012-13 fiscal year.
"We are on target for our budget," Bass said, noting that at two-thirds through the fiscal year, expenses are at about 68 percent of what was budgeted last May.
The district has expended 78 percent of its overtime budget but had budgeted $151,000 for a new chief and has yet to expend any money on that line item.
To contact Staff Writer Matthew Renda, email email@example.com or call 530-477-4239.
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