Grand Lake Fire faces political heat | SkyHiNews.com

Grand Lake Fire faces political heat

Leia Larsen
llarsen@skyhidailynews.com

The Grand Lake Fire Station

Fire officials respond to criticism with election around the corner

UPDATE: As of Jan. 27, 2014, the Grand Lake Fire Protection District board of directors has canceled the Feb. 4 election. Read our election update story for more information.

GRAND LAKE — With an election asking Grand Lake voters to repeal fire district board term limits just over a week away, many are citing concerns over the seemingly rushed and quiet way in which it was handled. A few constituents question the Grand Lake Fire Protection District's governance.

Pat Farmer, a resident of the district, said she's concerned about how the upcoming election was publicized. Initial public notice of the election, scheduled for Feb. 4., included posting at the fire station — where few people visit — and later a legal advertisement in the Middle Park Times. Farmer wondered why it wasn't posted in a public place with more traffic, like the post office. When she asked the fire chief why it wasn't posted there, he told her it was illegal. The Sky-Hi confirmed it is not.

“The board looked mostly like bobble-head dolls on the back window ledge of a ’57 Chevy going down a washboard road.”
Larry Malouff
Former Grand Lake Fire District board member

Board members told the Sky-Hi that discussions on a ballot question had been held as far back as last summer, and meeting minutes show they officially designated an election official during a regular October 2013 meeting.

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"Although the board decided to have the election last October, notices weren't posted until absolutely required," Farmer said.

As with any polling-place election, absentee voters have a deadline to request mail-in ballots. The district's minimal notification of the upcoming ballot question, however, ran the risk of leaving many absentee voters in the dark about an upcoming election.

"With most of the voters living outside of the county, I think a mail-ballot (election) would be common sense," Farmer said, "but the fire district has decided to hold an in-person election with even the voters who live here not getting the word."

February special election

Voters already defeated a similar ballot question asking for a repeal of board-member term limits. In the May 2012 election, which was a mail-ballot election similar to the general election in November, the question failed by 50 votes. Of the 189 "no" votes and "139" yes votes on the repeal, 272 came from mailed ballots. Only 60 cast their vote at the walk-in polling place.

"The education for this election, coming Feb. 4, was very minimal," said Mindy Everhart, who worked for the fire district for 15 years. Her tasks as an administrative assistant included posting notifications about upcoming elections. She quit last December out of frustration with the district's administration, she said. "It seems, or it appeared, that the only people they wanted to make sure knew about the election were people who would vote yes."

District fire chief Mike Long, along with board members Rick Irish and Larry Goscha, said the board decided to ask voters once again to repeal term limits because they received feedback the question on the May 2012 ballot was confusing to the public.

"They thought if they lifted term limits, a board member would be on board forever and no one could do anything about it," Long said. "So that's why we decided to do it again." Even without term limits, taxpayers can vote out contested members when terms are up.

Long also said the board felt it didn't do adequate marketing on the ballot question during the last election, which was a goal for the upcoming Feb. 4 ballot. To meet this goal, Long said an interest group called "Friends of Grand Lake" was formed to reach out to civic groups and educate voters on the election. Long admits, however, that "Friends of Grand Lake" is a loose and informal group comprised of about 3-6 members, mostly consisting of current board members and the district's designated election official, Sheryl Dale.

Long and board members said the election is being held in February because in the last November election, the question would have competed with too many ballot questions asking for tax money, automatically getting a "no" vote. They didn't want to hold the election in May because current board members interested in a third term wouldn't have an opportunity, since the May election is also when board terms run out. That left the district with February as their only option for the election. They also said they made it a polling-place election instead of a mail-ballot election as a cost-saving measure.

On the inside

Still, the upcoming February ballot question isn't the district's only election process that has caused locals unease.

Larry Malouff served on the Grand Lake Fire District board from March 2008 until he resigned in late 2011. After working nearly 30 years in fire service and retiring in Grand Lake, he said fire fighting remained a passion.

He heard about a board position opening "through the grapevine."

"I went to the library, I went to the grocery store, I went to the post office, and I never saw a posting," he said. "It caused me a moment of pause."

Although Malouff attended board meetings and was eventually appointed to the position, he said he noticed things with the board that made him uneasy.

"As long as I was quiet, I was clearly a member of the boy's club. When I started asking difficult questions, the doors started to close," he said.

Among the questions he asked was why the board doesn't do more public outreach about board vacancies and positions up for election.

"What I learned was when no one applied to those vacancies, because they weren't aware of a vacancy, the board exercised their right of appointment," he said. "They'd reach for someone who invariably would fit into the good old boys club. That person became a board member without being voted on by the public."

According to Chief Long, three of the five board members were initially appointed. In his 11 years as fire chief, the district has only had enough chair candidates to require an election once. Most of the time, elections for board positions get canceled because too few people run for a seat.

Long and board members Irish and Goscha said it's because there's too little community interest in volunteering for the board. But Malouff, Everhardt and others say it's because the fire district does the absolute minimum in letting the public know about elections, including board seats for contest. They said they know of at least three people interested in running against current members.

"I ran for my own four-year term, but it was never posted," Malouff said. "Ironically, no one else had put in for that board member spot. So I was, in essence, a shoe-in and I was told the taxpayers were saved the expense of an election."

Malouff said he realized the public never had the opportunity to make a choice.

Part of the change Malouff would like to see is a board more proactive in overseeing district administration. Malouff and others with past experience at the district wonder if the board is being padded by members deliberately selected to serve the chief's agenda, allegations Long calls "ridiculous."

Chief under fire

"I have five bosses," Long said, referring to the five board members. "The chief does not vote in any board matters, including the selection of replacement board members. Obviously the chief has the opportunity to engage in any discussion though."

Malouff said during his experience on the fire district board, the members rarely told the fire chief "no." Malouff and some former employees of the district point to the fire chief's job perks, like a truck provided by the taxpayers and his high salary, as evidence of the board's acquiescence.

With the fire chief's truck, which is equipped with radio, medical and fire fighting gear in case he needs to be deployed on short notice, Malouff expressed concerns during his time on the board for it not being marked with a fire district decals or a light bar.

"I fought that and eventually some insignias were put on his truck the taxpayers purchased," he said. "Now that he has a new one, nobody on the board will push that anymore. It's another vanilla-looking vehicle that travels all around the country with no accountability."

The fire chief receives a new vehicle after 60,000 miles, so it can retain some of its equity for resale. By vote of the board, Long said, it's a take-home duty truck that he's also allowed to use for personal errands at the board' permission. The point of having the truck is to enable the fire chief to be response-ready from anywhere.

"When I bought the new truck, I came to the board and asked if they wanted it marked, they let me know it was up to me," Long said.

"Certainly if the community let the board know that they'd like to see the chief in a marked truck, I'd drive a marked truck," Long said. "I'm very clear on who I work for, and I think the board is very clear on who they work for."

Long also admitted that for the county, his salary is high. He makes $103,596 annually plus benefits, out of an operating budget of $706,891 and total income of $976,822 for the district in 2013. In contrast, the East Grand Fire Protection District chief makes $73,339, out of an operating budget of $1.7 million, according to the Mountain States Employers Council 2013 survey (Grand Lake and Kremmling Fire districts did not participate in the survey). In Granby, the former Grand Fire Protection District chief made $74,808 with an operating budget of $1.18 million.

Long said that when he first started at the Grand Lake Fire Protection District chief in 2003, he started at $50,000. While his pay is now significantly more than other chiefs in the area, he said it's related to his background and experience, which include a bachelor's degree in finance, a master's degree in executive fire service leadership and numerous certifications.

According to the Mountain States Employers Council 2013 survey, the fire chief in Estes Park makes $107,700 out of a $1.54 million operating budget. In Telluride, the chief makes $95,000 out of a $2.29 million budget. In Vail, the chief makes $114,726 out of a $3.27 million operating budget. In Breckenridge, the chief makes $115,000 out of a $7.43 million budget.

Chief Long also said he brings in enough income to Grand Lake Fire through wildland fire services to more than offset his salary. In 2013, that income amounted to $213,000.

Some point to disproportionate mutual and automatic aid between the Grand Lake Fire Protection District and the Grand Fire Protection District in Granby. When there's a fire call, it's standard for nearby districts to respond unless they're told to stand down. Former employees at the Grand Lake district said that Granby responded with a lot of mutual aid to Grand Lake, but the reverse wasn't proportional.

According to former lieutenant Jason Allen, who said he supports Chief Long and the district's decisions, it's because Grand Lake doesn't have the amount of people and resources to offer as aid compared to other districts, like East Grand Fire.

"(Granby Fire) called East Grand, usually. That's a wise tactical move, they have more people and equipment," Allen said. "But we would assist on fires with them, just not as much as East Grand does."

Malouff questioned how Granby taxpayers would feel knowing their fire department sends more aid to Grand Lake than it gets in return. Long called that view "shortsighted."

"We're all in it together," Long said. "That's just the way rural communities work."

Grand Lake doesn't have the size of roster other districts have, Long said, and he has an obligation to keep an adequate number of staff in the district at all times to respond to fires and emergencies. That obligation prevents his district from being as aggressive at mutual aid compared to other districts.

Malouff, Everhart and others also expressed concerns over the chief's time off and time away from the Grand Lake Fire District.

Malouff points to late June 2011, when he was still serving on the board, and the Grand Lake area was put under extreme fire risk, which coincided with the busy tourist season. Chief Long was assisting on the Las Conchas wildfire in New Mexico. The board held an emergency session and recalled the chief on July 3.

"We had a great staff, but (the board) thought I should be around for political reasons," Long said. "I shared with the board that when we commit to go to another fire, we belong to them at that point. They can't call us back unless the whole town is threatened."

As a result, Long worked with the board to adopt a "Community Coverage Plan." The Plan states "the Board should not need, nor should they be inclined to, change or rescind decisions made by the Chief in the areas of vacation, training or wildand availability."

Malouff said those decisions come from a board reluctant to turn the chief down. In his years spent serving on the fire district board, he said he only saw the board members tell the chief "no" twice. Even the decision to get insignia marked on his last truck came after a reluctant three-to-two vote.

"The board looked mostly like bobble-head dolls on the back window ledge of a '57 Chevy going down a washboard road," Malouff said.

In speaking of the demands of his job, Long had a classic car reference of his own, which he received from a mentor when Long was still early in his fire career.

"When he got done laughing, he said 'why would you want to be a fire chief?'" Long remembered. "Being a fire chief is like pushing a dead Cadillac up a hill with people beating on you with two-by-fours. And I think that applies to any public official."

Turnover

Part of the heat on Long comes after four out of five paid staff at the department suddenly quit late last year, which included Everhart and former lieutenant Allen.

The Sky-Hi attempted to contact the two other separated employees, but calls were not returned.

The vacancies have since been filled, and Long says the district roster is stronger than ever. Although Allen left the district after six years on the job, he voiced his support for Long.

"The district's in a good place now, I think," he said. "I've never seen Chief Long make a decision where he didn't have the best interests of the district at heart."

Board member and assistant chief Chris Ruske's grandparents started the Grand Lake fire department 70 years ago, and he has around 30 years experience with the Grand Lake Fire Protection District. He called Long "the best fire chief the district has ever had." He called the controversy drug up in light of the election "frustrating."

"We're not trying to hide things," Ruske said. "We're here to provide a service to the district residents that's top-rate. We're not here to do anything else."

Both Ruske and Long pointed to formidable achievements the chief has made in his time at the department, including an ISO audit Class 4 award, which significantly dropped homeowners insurance rates for district residents, and initiating a wildand fire program which both provides valuable experience to district firefighters and an additional revenue stream.

Stil, Pat Farmer, the Grand Lake resident who had asked the fire chief about placing an election notification in the post office, said the community's strong support of their fire district earned them the right to be informed of elections and ballot questions.

"I know the GLFD followed the letter of the law, but in a small community like ours, I don't think the lack of communication about this election can be defended," she said.

When confronted about public concerns over the lack of public outreach for the both past elections and the upcoming one, Long said he was open to future improvements.

"We're not perfect but we do learn, and we apply what we learn," he said.

Long said he has since made appointments with the chamber of commerce board and town trustees in Grand Lake. He also said voters could expect to see more marketing on the upcoming board positions available for contest this May. And, as of Jan. 23, he reported to the Sky-Hi they'd made another visible change.

"Notice of election is up at the post office," he said in an email. "Lesson learned for next time. One of many, actually."

Leia Larsen can be reached at 970-887-3334 ext. 19603.

Important election dates

Tuesday, Jan. 28 — last day to request a mail-in voter ballot, or “absentee” ballot, if applicant wishes to receive the ballot by mail.

Friday, Jan. 31 — last day to request a mail-in voter ballot if the applicant wishes to pick up the ballot at the Grand Lake fire station.

Tuesday, Feb. 4 — Election Day. Votes must be cast or mail-in ballots received at the Grand Lake fire station, 201 W. Portal Road, by 7 p.m.

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