Fire fight – Ex-N. San Juan board member says he was ‘dragged through mud’
Martin Light believes he was forced off the North San Juan Fire Protection District board for asking too many questions and for accusing the fire chief of hiding public information. The chief and the board chairman say that’s nonsense.
One thing is certain, however: The bitterness over the Light case has helped stoke an ongoing struggle on the San Juan Ridge over control of the fire district – a struggle that has unmistakable political overtones.
Light, who resigned from the board in the wake of a harassment claim that proved inconclusive, said one of the questions he was asking had to do with where grant money is going from Proposition 204, a statewide ballot measure aimed at improving water quality. The simple answer is the South Yuba River Citizens League (SYRCL), but that is not enough for Light, who wants to know if the organization is spending the money appropriately.
“I’ve been dragged through the mud of this community,” he said, accusing the board of breaking additional rules during an investigation into whether he harassed a co-worker.
North San Juan Fire Chief Boyd Johnson and Bruce Boyd, the board chairman at the time, deny Light was forced out of the department or was himself harassed.
In December 2002, Light ran and was elected to his second, nonconsecutive term on the board because he “believed that questions were not appropriately answered.”
Shortly after the election, the locks to the district office were changed. Light said he questioned this move at a February 2003 meeting, and other board members said they had decided they did not need keys.
Fire Chief Johnson said the locks were changed because the department had a turnover in staff, and there was information in the office that should be unavailable to the public or the board.
“It’s not their job,” Johnson said. “We have medical records in there. They are only available to the person that record is for.”
At the next meeting, in March 2003, the issue to extend the Proposition 204 contract came up. SYRCL leader Janet Cohen attended the meeting and said the contract needed to be passed soon. A 28-page report on the contract extension was given out to the board members.
“Advance copies were never given to the board members,” Light said. “We can’t vote on something we never read.”
Board members agreed, and a special meeting was called for the following week. Light was the only member who voted against the extension, citing, among other reasons, that Cohen said the money might be spent outside the county.
“It is not the mission of this fire district to save watersheds outside this county,” he said.
On March 26, Bruce Boyd wrote what he said was intended to be a personal letter to friends and fire district employees. The letter said the “fire department is under attack. A real tyrant and his cronies are using every underhanded method to demoralize and wear down our chief … and to exhaust our district’s great secretary by endless requests for information.”
The letter called Light and several members of the public “bullies” and asked supporters of the chief to come to the next meeting to counteract them, urging that the letter be passed to as many people as possible, but not to firefighters.
“The board was under attack from a group of disgruntled people,” Boyd said recently, adding that he took out his frustration – not just against Light – in the wrong way. “It was an unfortunate turn of phrase. I’d love to have it back.”
Chief Johnson said that because Boyd’s letter was meant to be personal, it was not a breach by the board.
“I don’t want to interfere with anyone’s right to send a personal communication,” he said. “I do believe Bruce’s actions have been appropriate, generally.”
On April 11, 2003, the Nevada County Civil grand jury sent a letter to the board requesting answers to several questions about the district’s 2000-2001 audit, which revealed some taxes had gone unpaid and that another board member was paid by the district. (A former North San Juan Fire Protection District board member, Sandra Rae Yilek, was charged in December with misuse of Proposition 204 grant money. She has pleaded innocent and is scheduled to appear in court again May. 13.)
Light in May sent board members an e-mail slamming Boyd for not bringing the grand jury letter to the board in a timely matter, but rather responding to it himself. Boyd, however, calls his actions “routine.”
“Generally, most board chairmen handle that kind of correspondence,” he said. “It was uncontroversial.”
Shortly thereafter, Light received a letter from Johnson saying Light was the subject of a harassment investigation. Light said he reported to Johnson’s office for what he thought would be a personal interview about the complaint. Instead, he met Peter Flanderka, a Pasadena lawyer who represents the Firefighters Association of California.
“I’m required by law to investigate harassment for the district,” Johnson told The Union, adding he was the one who hired Flanderka. “He is a harassment specialist.”
Flanderka told Light that the complaint, stemming from December 2002, alleged Light had been “belittling and criticizing in nature over a period of time by doing things and saying things for particular reasons.”
The accuser, a woman, was a fire district captain. She told The Union she could not comment about the complaint because of fire district rules, but did say the harassment was not sexual.
Light said that Johnson’s May letter was the first time he was notified of the complaint and that he’d had almost no contact with the accuser in the past.
Johnson also would not comment on the harassment complaint, saying it would jeopardize the people involved. He did say his letter to Light had nothing to do with earlier accusations by Light against himself or the board.
“Our policy is irrelevant to my obligation as fire chief … to conduct any investigations of harassment,” Johnson said. “I am required by law to do that.”
Light said he sought out Nevada County Deputy Counsel Ed Kiernan for legal help, but Kiernan told him he had been contacted by Johnson and that Light would have to seek his own attorney.
At the June 2003 board meeting, Light resigned, citing personal reasons that he later told The Union were pressure from the board and potential legal costs defending a harassment investigation.
“It’s nonsense,” Johnson said, adding that neither he nor Boyd have a grudge against Light and that no information was hidden from him. “We have worked very hard to bring our (department) in line. I think all of our actions have been appropriate.”
Boyd said he was “absolutely shocked” when Light quit the board. “He worked very hard to be elected,” he said.
On Sept. 29, 2003, Chief Johnson wrote a letter to Boyd: “The investigative report was inconclusive regarding those facts alleged might create liability [sic] … I therefore recommend that no further action be taken beyond the final settlement of attorney’s fees.”
On Dec. 31, 2003, the episode came to the public’s attention in a letter to the editor in The Union.
Light said he still does not know the contents of the harassment complaint, although he and others made requests. However, he was able to obtain copies of receipts from attorneys Flanderka and Kiernan. The Pasadena lawyer charged $5,481 between May 8 and Sept. 23, 2003. The deputy county counsel billed $2,350 to the fire district.
Kiernan would not specify what services he provided, but said not all of it was related to the harassment complaint. Flanderka refused to comment at all for this story.
Meanwhile, the board in June increased its budget for legal services from $3,500 to $10,000 and bumped it to $20,000 last December.
Boyd said the standby legal fund “has to do with continuing harassment of the board by disgruntled citizens.”
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