The ongoing soap opera that has played out over the past year with Nevada County Consolidated Fire District continues.
In this week’s edition of “As Consolidated Turns,” we learned that the district’s board has failed to meet three requirements it promised to voters who approved a special tax measure in 2012.
Board members acknowledged Thursday night they have failed to create a citizens oversight committee, which was promised to make recommendations to board members and serve as liaison to the public on how the district would disburse the funds.
They have failed to create a specific fund to set aside for the allocation of the additional revenue generated by the special tax measure.
And the district’s board members have failed to provide a report stating how they intend to spend the $850,000 generated by the voter-approved tax.
“… we didn’t read the fine print,” board Chairman Warren Knox said during Thursday night’s meeting; but he assured audience members that the board will take immediate steps to comply with the requirements.
Transparency by the board has not only been lacking on the use of the special tax revenue, but also in several other episodes of the drama that has plagued the district since the measure was approved. The board was slow to release information on the suspension of now-former Fire Chief Tim Fike, who announced his retirement shortly after the measure passed. Missing from that announcement was any mention of an investigation by the Nevada County Sheriff’s Office into an incident in which Fike allegedly grabbed an employee by the neck and made threatening comments. As The Union later reported, Fike was eventually placed on paid leave for several months prior to receiving a $75,000 severance package.
That board decision also drew the ire of both district residents and members of the firefighters union. Knox defended the decision by alluding to potential litigation and saying the district couldn’t afford to spend any more money on the issue.
A recall effort has been launched, seeking the removal of former Chairman Keith Grueneberg, and is being led by the district’s former human resources director, who resigned in January. Grueneberg drew criticism over an email he sent that included a link to a video with racial overtones that some recipients found offensive. In the recall petition, Grueneberg is also criticized for not adhering to the intent of the use of funds from the 2012 tax measure.
“He negotiated and gave back an unbudgeted amount of approximately $20,000 worth of concessions to the firefighters,” the petition states. “… as lead negotiator, he has negotiated the proposed January 2013-June 2014 firefighters union contract to give a significant increase to Salaries and Benefits, $81,000-$100,000.”
Holding elected officials accountable for the decisions they make is vital to ensuring they serve the public interest. However, it’s also important to hold the entire board accountable, not just a single member, as the increases cited in the petition and criticized again Thursday night were approved by a 4-1 vote — two directors were absent — with former board member John Leonard offering the lone dissenting voice.
“There is barely any money for gasoline and no money for new equipment, and if we keep awarding salary increases, this district is going to go broke,” Leonard said at the time.
Moving forward, it’s time for Nevada County Consolidated Fire District’s board to provide the transparency it promised, not only on the use of special tax-generated revenue but on all matters in order to restore the confidence of the community.
And with fire season already upon us, it’s far past time for the district’s board members to set aside the drama in order to attend to the job at hand in providing the community with the excellent fire protection for which it has paid.