Grand Lake Fire candidates demand ‘transparency’ | SkyHiNews.com
Cindy Kleh

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Grand Lake Fire candidates demand ‘transparency’

In what could be considered a tumultuous year for Grand Lake Fire politics, election board candidates participated in a forum at the Grand Lake Fire House on Saturday, April 19. The panel of candidates, pictured from left, includes Jason Allen, Jeffrey Buckley, Richard Campbell, Melinda Everhart, Patricia Farmer, Scott Huff and Richard Sisung. Remaining candidates absent from the forum were Donald Dean, Larry Malouff and Frank Reardon.

A debate among the candidates running for three open board seats on the Grand Lake Fire Protection District (GLFPD) Board was held at the Grand Lake Fire Department on April 18.

The event was sponsored by the Grand Lake Rotary Club, which moderated the event, and the Grand Lake Women's Club, which chose audience member questions for the debate. Of the 10 candidates running for the seats, Larry Malouff, Frank Reardon and Donald Dean sent letters explaining their absence with an overview of their qualifications and positions on the most important issues of the campaign. Seven candidates were present at the debate, including Jason Allen, Jeff Buckley, Patricia Farmer, Richard Campbell, Mindy Everhart, Scott Huff and Richard Sisung.

Jim Kulhem had withdrawn his candidacy prior to the debate.

The key word of the night for all the candidates was "transparency;" however, the ways to arrive at that goal differed. Some felt that drastic change within the fire district and its board is not only unnecessary, but also detrimental to the morale of the department. They believe that a more aggressive communications program with the public will take care of what some have perceived as secretive behavior.

Other candidates questioned whether the current board and fire chief are managing revenues wisely or working in the public's best interest. They cited a weak effort to get the word out about a February special election that was cancelled. They also questioned the number of executive sessions called during board meetings and the relatively high turnover seen at the Fire Department in the past year.

Candidate priorities

Prepared questions were asked of all the candidates, then audience members asked questions written on note cards.

The first question asked of the group was: What is your highest priority to immediately pursue with the Board and why is it your highest priority?

Jason Allen, who served as both a volunteer and full-time firefighter for Grand Lake Fire until recently stepping down as Lieutenant there, replied that his highest priority would be communication with the public.

"The Department has always had an unspoken philosophy of quiet, humble service in an effort not to toot our own horn too much. I believe that's what has led to a lot of the rumor mill. The Department needs to sell itself – needs to talk to the community, tell the community what it does – be more transparent to the world. I think that we would've avoided a lot of what's going on right now."

Mindy Everhart, who previously worked for the fire district for longer than 15 years as a volunteer, officer, paid staff and district administrator, stated that her highest priority is responsibility to the taxpayers. "I believe that a lot of people are upset with how some of the funds from the Fire Department are being spent at this time. Almost 30 years of fire experience including myself walked out the door last December. The majority that left cited poor leadership."

Pat Farmer, a Grand Lake resident and business owner since 1995, argued that transparency is her number one issue. "I'd like to see meeting agendas, detailed minutes and financials posted on the website so that they're easily available to the public. I'd like to see personnel policies looked at that are costing taxpayers quite a lot of money. I think that secret executive sessions lead to a lot of rumors, because we are being kept out of the process and I think it has been overused by this board."

Scott Huff, a 14-year resident of Grand Lake who is a general contractor and homeowner here, stressed that he didn't want to see anything done that would jeopardize the readiness and morale of the fire department. "Based on opinions and my research, I believe that this department has lost its way – that we need to redefine this department's mission. We have a good fire department and a great bunch of people working here, but a lot of people don't have confidence in it, and that needs to be addressed and restored. The department has not been communicating with us like they used to years ago, and most of us have no idea what's going on."

Dick Sisung, with a wealth of military, corporate and business experience and the title of Certified Financial Manager at Merrill Lynch, will become a permanent resident of Grand Lake next year. "As a part-time resident, I've heard rumor after rumor about things going on or not going on in the fire department. They need better communication with all of us. They have a fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers. We're dealing with other people's money. We need to spend it responsibly so that we have proper training and equipment so firefighters can do their jobs, but we also have to make sure it's not spent frivolously."

Richard Campbell has lived in Grand Lake for 34 years, and has worked as a volunteer for Grand Lake Fire for 15 years in positions including training officer, lieutenant, captain, assistant chief and chief. Admitting that because he's been away from the department for a spell, his highest priority would be "the steep learning-curve process of finding out how things are done in the department now, what needs to be addressed and how to move forward from that point." He added that he would bring fiscal responsibility and a fierce passion for firefighting to the board, as well as a keen interest in what's going on there.

Jeffrey Buckley, a retired Fire Chief who served the Rattlesnake Volunteer Fire Department for 14 years in a town near Parker, Colo., also expressed the need to familiarize himself with the department. He said the reason he is running is to provide an experienced view from the outside in, and that transparency in the department is the ticket.

Avenues to transparency

The candidates were asked what they would do to increase transparency and improve communication with the public. Dick Sisung replied he has been a taxpayer here for 12 years and has never known about any fire district elections going on. He suggested posting events in the Sky Hi News in addition to the paid circulation, Middle Park Times. He praised the recent newsletter mailed to district constituents, and urged that it be published regularly.

Huff added he didn't think that anyone was deliberately trying to hide things, but with all the ways technology can be used, the department needs to get the information out there. "Nobody's interested? There's 11 candidates!" (James Kullhem withdrew from the race on April 16, leaving 10 candidates.)

"Meeting minutes are what they are, but if you really want to know, come to the board meetings," added Buckley.

Absent Candidates

Frank Reardon, though absent from the candidate forum, provided information on his background, his reasons for running and his priorities should he be elected. "I have no fire protection district experience, but I do bring nine years of special district experience. I am currently chairman of the board of Three Lakes Water and Sanitation District."

Reardon stated he has already begun action by attending the past three board meetings to learn the meeting process and the people involved. He added he would attempt to influence the board to aggressively attain knowledge and skills available through the Special District Association (SDA).

Donald Dean was asked to fill the vacant seat left by Richard Campbell in 2013 until the upcoming election. He said he feels he has brought common sense and fiscal responsibility to the board. Dean has a business degree from CU and owns Dean Properties — residential and commercial rental properties — and is a licensed Colorado Realtor. Continuing the fire district's "successful and profitable history, a 'united' front is necessary," Dean explained in a letter that was read before the forum. "I believe the current group of board members I serve with have the best interests of the Grand Lake Fire Department in the forefront, and I would be honored to be re-elected to serve with the current and newly elected board."

Larry Malouff asked that his written statement be read as a closing statement. Malouff served on the Grand Lake Fire board from March 2008 until he resigned in 2013, with a total of 30 years spent in fire service. "This election is not about the firefighters. but about the board of directors and the fire administration. Period," Malouff said in statements. He also stressed that friendships should not trump responsibilities board members have, alluding to a "generous" contract the board recently awarded the chief. "These are difficult financial times with decreased property tax revenues. Is our fire district being exploited as a 'cash cow?'" Malouff asked. Fire Chief Mike Long stood up and responded to Malouff's letter toward the end of the debate, defending the board's position concerning the contract. (See accompanying story, page 11)