The Nevada County Consolidated Fire District board of directors is pressing forward with its attempts to get the organization on the right track following a searing grand jury report rife with pointed criticism.
The most recent meeting of Consolidated Fire’s board was the first since the damning 23-page report was released, and while the board made no formal recognition of the report, several resolutions and commentary made during the June 27 meeting seemed geared toward putting the last tumultuous year behind them.
“I think what we are talking about is a cultural change across the board,” said Chairman Warren Knox.
The district has finalized its candidates for fire chief down to three individuals, and one of the principal initiatives the new leader must install is engaging the entire department, from the firefighters to the battalion chiefs in what is happening with the district in terms of cost and how it will affect their jobs, Knox said.
“I think that type of active interaction (among) our entire staff will be a big part of how we do this,” Knox said.
“Doing that overnight, right now, is not going to help us much, but doing it from here on forward will be very important.”
On the way toward passing a $5.6 million preliminary budget for the 2013-14 fiscal year, Knox directed staff to form an account capable of tracking revenues and expenditures relating to the tax measure district voters approved in 2012.
“It’s going to add complexity to the budget report but that’s the price we pay for allowing ourselves to be transparent,” he said.
Consolidated Fire’s board has had issues with transparency and public accountability over the past year, as detailed in the grand jury report.
“During an open, public meeting, a board member referred to the Brown Act (which governs open meeting laws) as ‘a roadblock to getting anything done,’” the report states.
The board recently acknowledged it did not honor three key provisions of the 2012 tax measure, which infused an estimated $850,000 into the cash-strapped district. The district did not create a citizens oversight committee tasked with monitoring the spending of money derived from the measure, nor set up a separate account to track spending, nor prepare an annual report detailing how it used the money.
However, the board did pass a resolution establishing an oversight committee during the last meeting, with Knox directing staff to prepare a separate account or categories in certain accounts so the money could be tracked in the interest of preparing an annual report.
The board also passed a resolution requiring its legal counsel, Jim Curtis, to be present for all of its board meetings.
The grand jury criticized the board for failing “to utilize the services of legal counsel to provide advice to board members.”
The report notes that legal counsel was present on three of the 33 occasions when the board convened either a regular or special meeting between Jan. 20, 2011 and March 21, 2013, at a time when the board was dismissing its longtime fire chief in a controversial manner and was repeatedly wracked by accusations of misuse of closed session and a fundamental lack of understanding of open meeting law protocol.
Despite the recommendation of the grand jury and the resolution unanimously passed by the board, Curtis, who did attend the last meeting, insisted the district could get “better bang for their buck” by not having him attend all meetings.
“While I realize you’ve had some issues in the past that have perhaps prompted some need for some legal input,” Curtis said. “I have to tell you, just on a reoccurring routine basis, I am not sure this is the best use of your money to have me sit here silently for 98 percent of the meeting.”
The board voted unanimously to have Curtis be present for every meeting.
In 2012-13 fiscal year, the district budgeted to spend $6,000, spent $12,700 and has budgeted $13,000 for the 2013-14 year.
Bob Rhodes voted against the resolution.
Wracked by discord, acrimony, back-biting
While the board voted unanimously on most of the items before it, members of the board demonstrated why the grand jury report reads board “meetings are acrimonious and lack professionalism, civility and respect between board members.”
Prior to passing the preliminary budget, Director Keith Grueneberg said the district might not comply with a state law that requires the district to publicly notice the passage of the budget before July 1.
Directors Mark Bass and Bob Rhodes expressed frustration that Grueneberg did not tell board members about the potential conflict prior to holding the June 27 meeting.
“And when did you become aware of this?” Bass asked.
“I’ve known it all along,” Grueneberg said.
“Then you didn’t mention it to anybody?” Bass said.
“It’s not my job,” Grueneberg said.
“Well, it is your job because you’re a board member here,” Rhodes interjected before the conversation grew heated, with Grueneberg saying the board should have scheduled a special meeting.
Curtis said as long as the notice was taken out on Friday, June 28, the district would comply with the law and even if the district was somewhat late, it was hard to envision the state of California dissolving the district due to a minor oversight.
To contact Staff Writer Matthew Renda, email firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-477-4239.