Fire chief fired; town in uproar
The tiny town of Washington was shaken this week after its popular fire chief was fired in the wake of a devastating audit of the volunteer fire department.
Firefighters are threatening to quit; a major liability threat is hanging over the Washington County Water District, which runs the department; and the town’s annual Chicken Barbecue fund-raiser may be at risk.
The audit of Washington’s fire department by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection found that:
• None of its equipment is “response-ready.”
• No firefighters are certified to provide emergency medical assistance.
• There is no communications equipment, including a phone or a base radio.
After a closed-door meeting last Tuesday, the water district board announced it had voted 3-2 to fire the chief, Mervin Lee. He was the latest of a string of people ousted from their water or fire district positions, allegedly because of their inability to produce documents needed for the audit.
Tempers were running hot in Washington Thursday afternoon. Washington Hotel owner Su DeCorte, wife of a board member, said that volunteer firefighters were gathered on the hotel’s deck overlooking the South Yuba River and were angered about recent events.
“The dissension around here can’t be believed,” said one of them, Gene Godfrey, former fire chief and owner of Gene’s Pioneer Campground. “It’s a wonder no one has gotten shot. The sheriff might have to come down here with body bags.”
Tony Clarabut, the chief of CDF’s Nevada-Yuba-Placer Unit, said Thursday that if the volunteer firefighters walk away from their jobs, the town of Washington would be protected by CDF, Nevada County Consolidated and the U.S. Forest Service.
Observers said the anger bubbling up in Washington goes back to the appointment of Judi Stewart as an interim board member last September. Then in December, Patricia McIntosh left the board after it was determined she was also being paid as treasurer, and Debbie Shipley was named to the vacant position in March.
Stewart, Shipley and board member Lyla Tracy then became a three-person majority on the board, which also included President George Price and Vice President Henry DeCorte, who also was fire commissioner. Sources said the three then elected Stewart as board president, Tracy as vice president and Shipley as fire commissioner, and called for the CDF audit.
Stewart said that in March, Chief Lee was given one month to produce documentation of firefighter certification, training and equipment maintenance, among other things. “It is now July,” said Stewart, “and only some of the records had been given to the board by last week. He kept telling us everything was OK with our fire department.”
She said Lee was fired after he did not accept an offer to resign.
Lee, in turn, said that the board had never given him a description of what information to document.
“There is no job description; we have never had them,” he said. “We gave them every document we had. Nobody ever told us we had to (complete the paperwork that was requested). There is no protocol.”
Around the same time, Rorie Gotham, the board’s paid secretary, resigned. Stewart said Gotham quit without pressure from the board, but Lee said, “When you make somebody cry in a board meeting, they are probably going to leave.”
The audit report, presented to the board on July 20, concludes that all of the department’s firefighter training and certification had lapsed, and no certification records were provided after 2000. But no documents were provided on much of the department’s financial information, operational policies, equipment maintenance and training.
Lee said he and the rest of the department knew about these faults, but he blames the water board.
“The board has not got us any grants, they have not got us any money,” he said. “I have told the board for years that our trucks are worn out. The board has never given us anything newer. If you want to improve the department, show me the money.”
Gotham and Price could not be contacted by The Union Thursday. DeCorte declined to comment.
Godfrey and Lee said that at next Tuesday’s board meeting, the entire fire department will quit. Godfrey also said he is working for a recall of Stewart, Shipley and Tracy. He has 100 signatures on his petition, he said, which are most of Washington’s registered voters.
Godfrey charged that “the women on the board” have violated the Brown Act by conferring via e-mail before board meetings and by holding more special meetings than the law allows.
Stewart, however, said there may not be a meeting on Tuesday. “If we do not have anything to do at that meeting, it will be canceled,” she said.
Stewart acknowledged the majority of those involved in the fire department might walk out, at least for the time being. “We are looking for new firefighters, yes. There are people in this community who will come forward.”
Board Vice President Tracy also fears protesters may try to stop the Chicken Barbecue, the traditional fire department fund-raiser set for Aug. 7.
“Some people think the board is against the barbecue,” she said, “but we want it to go on, and we can bring it off this year.”
Meanwhile, CDF’s Clarabut seemed startled by the reactions sparked by his audit. “This is all happening so quickly,” Clarabut said. “We will need to sit down and plan.”
The main difference in the quality of service, he said, would be the response time.
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