Jeff Wilmot shook things up at his first meeting as a commissioner for the Point Roberts fire district, putting forward motions to alter commission structure and compensation, and scuttling a motion to increase the fire chief’s discretionary spending. Fellow commissioner Stan Riffle acted as chair due to commissioner Bill Meursing being absent.
Wilmot got rolling with frequent interruptions as chief Chris Carleton reported “an individual we received correspondence from has indicated they have a gun in their residence,” they would turn on members of the department responding to a 911 call at their property.
“Why is it being made public to take this disturbing information and read it in public,” Wilmot asked, after calling for a “point of information.” In response, Carleton said “I cannot stand by idly. Our people are being placed in harm’s way,” adding that he had referred the matter to the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office and the district’s attorney.
Wilmot responded by proposing the matter be tabled until the next meeting when Meursing’s return would bring the commission back to full force, to “discuss with our attorney whether this is the proper forum for this type of report.” When Riffle stated he had already discussed the matter with district legal counsel, Wilmot wanted to know why he had not been included in those discussions, or given a copy of the letter prior to the meeting. “I want to know why I was being kept in the dark,” he said. “If you want to keep me from making these motions every three minutes you’ll involve me in the planning process.”
Under new business, the two commissioners considered a “non-binding” resolution to “that individual commissioners waive the payment of all compensation for attendance at board meetings through the end of their terms.”
“This is my motion,” Wilmot stated. “It was contemplated the privilege of serving the board and the community was sufficient.”
With 17 special meetings being held so far this year to conduct what Wilmot described as frequently “little or no business,” he suggested commissioner compensation could go $8,000 over budget. The motion was tabled for consideration of the board at their November meeting.
Commissioners earn $104 for each meeting and the annual budget for regular, special, and “town hall” meetings is $5,600. Another line item likely to be over budget in the district’s legislative division is legal fees as the district has relied heavily on legal counsel during the recent transitional period. The bill from the Snure law offices presented in the September payables was $4,864.50. The total annual budget for legal fees in 2012 is $3,000.
Wilmot introduced another resolution to increase the board from three to five members to avoid violations of the state open meetings act and not “stall fire department business” when one commissioner is absent and the remaining two disagree. “With a five-person board, three will make up a quorum allowing the remaining two to work together at any time on any issue,” he said. The motion was also tabled for consideration by the full board.
Increasing the cap on the chief’s monthly discretionary spending from $2,500 to $10,000 was being considered, Riffle explained introducing the action item, because it was inefficient to require the chief to wait for monthly meetings to receive approval for equipment purchases. “We’re dealing with lifesaving equipment here,” he said. “If the chief needs equipment he can’t wait a month.” Purchases of more than $2,500 in any month would be discussed at the next regular meeting as part of the chief’s report.
Carleton explained there were numerous pieces of equipment needed that cost over $2,500: a ventilator fan, a stair-chair to move patients safely on stairs, automatic water metering devices for fires when only a few firefighters respond. Carleton also proposed adding four more defibrillators in the community; one at the International Marketplace, the marina and each of the sheriff deputy’s vehicles. The price for the four units would fall just shy of the proposed $10,000 cap.
Wilmot suggested $7,500 was sufficient and made a motion to set the cap at that amount. “I don’t mean to be playing poker with your budget,” he told Carleton. “The $7,500 seemed like a good compromise.”
“This is dealing with operational functionality,” Carleton said. “What I have on my list is $20,000 of items that are needed to get this organization to an efficient operational level.” When asked by audience members why the current $2,500 cap on discretionary spending had not been an issue before, Carleton stated, “I wasn’t the chief before.”
The same gap between the chief’s, the public’s, and the commissioners’ perception of where the line between diligent oversight and micromanagement lies appeared as it did for former chief Nick Kiniski.
“That’s your job,” Paul Gott told commissioners. “To figure out how this department is going to be run. His job is to come to you.” Wilmot suggested it would not be onerous to come to the board for specific purchases, and suggested he would support those purchases if a proposal were laid out, Riffle felt their role was budgetary oversight. “We’re controlling it by reviewing purchases made over $2,500 each month. It’s controlled by his budget,” he said.
Wilmot withdrew his motion to lower the cap to $7,500 and moved to approve the original $10,000 cap, Riffle seconded it and Wilmot then voted against the motion, with Riffle voting for it, effectively killing the matter.
Carleton pointed out after the meeting that operational control of the department was in his contract; as long as he stayed within his budget, approved by commissioners, operational efficiency was only possible if he was given the flexibility to make needed purchases as needed. “That decision just put you at risk, as a community member,” he said.
At a special meeting held Monday, October 22, Wilmot referred to the chief’s conversation with the All Point Bulletin reporter and called that comment “entirely inappropriate” on the part of the chief. Wilmot continued to argue against increasing the chief’s discretionary purchasing limit but met only resistance from fellow commissioners and fire chief. “It’s important for the chief to have all the tools he needs to get the job done,” Riffle declared.
Asked by Wilmot if even a “friendly word choice amendment would be accepted by the chief” was peremptorily refused by Carleton who stiffly told Wilmot that the procedure policy had to be accepted in its entirety. The board then approved the new policy 3-0.
A motion made by Wilmot to increase the size of the board from three to five commissioners died for the lack of a second. Both Meursing and Riffle said increasing the board would make the meetings go longer. “I’m not interested in staying here until 11 or 12,” Meursing declared. Following rather heated comments from the public, Meursing closed the meeting down before the official public comment period.