Commissioners delay decision on fire board appointment policy based on opposition from most fire districts

County Commissioners tabled a decision regarding a proposed policy on appointments to the rural fire districts boards that would prohibit volunteer firefighters in those districts from serving on the board that governs their operation.

Commissioner Joe Briggs was absent and commissioners said they’d prefer to have all three present for making a decision. Commissioner Jim Larson said he’d received a number of calls and emails about the policy in the last few days and wanted more time to consider that information.

They’ll take the proposed policy up again at their Jan. 28 meeting.

County considering policy for fire board appointments to reduce conflicts of interest

Commissioner Jane Weber said the county had received written testimony from three people and she had calls from two people within the county’s rural fire departments.

The commission is considering adopting a policy that would prohibit employees or volunteer firefighters of the district being appointed to the board that governs that district.

There is currently no policy on the fire board appointments.

Weber said during the commission’s Jan. 14 meeting that there had been instances of conflict but that they wouldn’t discuss which departments.

Carey Ann Haight, a deputy county attorney, said in the Jan. 8 work session and again on Jan. 14 that appointing volunteer firefighters or department staff to the boards created conflicts of interest since the boards oversee the chief and some of the members would work under the direction of the chief during normal operations.

Weber said the intent of the policy wasn’t to remove any currently serving members but to prevent future appointments having the conflict of interest.

During the Jan. 8 work session Larson said he had concerns about limiting rural fire departments’ abilities to fill their boards since the communities are small and it’s already troublesome finding reliabl board members.

About a dozen members of rural fire departments attended the Jan. 14 meeting and most said they did not have conflict of interest issues and that the policy would hamstring their ability to fill a board.

Several volunteer firefighters from Black Eagle Volunteer Fire Department said they were having significant internal issues with conflicts of interest, board members freelancing on fire scenes and instances of retaliation by board members against other firefighters who had filed complaints against that board member.

Several of the rural fire chiefs said a 1989 Montana attorney general opinion had already settled the issue, but in the document, then Attorney General Marc Racicot only addresses the question of whether there’s a conflict of interest for members of a volunteer fire department board and a fire service area board to serve on those boards simultaneously.

The issue was raised in the late 1980s by the Fort Shaw community and then Cascade County Attorney Patrick Paul asked Racicot whether they could serve simultaneously and whether there was a conflict for volunteer firefighters to serve on the board.

The question asked of Racicot did not address the question of whether volunteer firefighters can serve on the boards.

Tom O’Hara, chair of the fire board in Ulm, said that it’s a challenge to get board members and this policy would further limit them.

He said conflict of interest issues could be addressed at the local level through the fire districts bylaws or operating procedures.

It would be a “terrible injustice for the small communities if you do this,” O’Hara said.

John Romenesko of the Belt Fire district said he first got on to the board since it needed members and then saw the need for more volunteer firefighters, so he became one.

He said his department doesn’t have conflict of issues with volunteer firefighters serving on the board.

“When I’m a firefighter, I’m under the direction of my chief. It’s very simple,” he said.

To adopt the appointment policy “would damage us tremendously,” Romenesko told commissioners.

Travis Johnson, Belt Fire chief, said he was taken by surprise at the commission’s proposal to implement the appointment policy.

Gene Cantley of Belt Fire said he didn’t see conflict of interest issues and the perspective of volunteer firefighters is valuable on the board. He serves on the board and is also a volunteer firefighters.

“When we find good people, we need to keep them,” Cantley said. “If I’m a firefighter and a trustee, if I can only do one, what call do I make?”