Selectboard discusses forming new fire department behind closed doors

The selectboard is on the precipice of possibly making a big decision that could have a major impact on Charlotte, but a recent discussion was in executive session behind closed doors away from town residents whose lives it could affect.

At a meeting on July 25, chair Jim Faulkner made a motion to go into executive session for a discussion about contracts and he cited V.S.A. § 313 a1A.

This section of Vermont’s open meeting law says a public body can exclude the public from a session “after making a specific finding that premature general public knowledge would clearly place the public body or a person involved at a substantial disadvantage” to talk about contracts.

According to a letter to the editor from Jared Bomba, acting president of the fire and rescue department’s board of directors, the selectboard discussed starting a municipal fire and rescue service in the executive session.

Part of the reason for deducing this was the subject of the executive session is the board’s decision to include former fire and rescue employee Rob Mullin in the closed meeting. Another reason for coming to that conclusion is a letter of intent the selectboard reportedly sent the fire department, a letter this newspaper has been unable to obtain.

Mullin was removed as deputy fire chief in September 2021, but continued to be employed by the Charlotte Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department until March when he was let go by the department’s board of directors for undisclosed reasons.

By phone, both town administrator Dean Bloch and Faulkner declined to confirm the executive session was about starting a new fire and rescue department.

Town administrator Dean Bloch would not send the letter of intent to The Charlotte News, saying it was confidential information because it was part of an executive session. Although in his letter Bomba advocated for transparency in discussing forming a new fire and rescue department, he refused to share the letter of intent with the newspaper because it is a “draft” version.

The letter to the editor, which Bomba said was from all of the fire and rescue department’s board, acknowledges that the town and the fire department’s memorandum of agreement includes provisions for changing the department into a municipal-run department. Currently, the fire and rescue department is separate from the town and run by its own board of directors but funded by the town of Charlotte.

“Charlotte Volunteer Fire and Rescue Services acknowledges the right of the town to establish its own fire and rescue service. In fact, the increasing challenges of maintaining a volunteer-run organization means some form of organizational evolution is likely to be the best strategy going forward,” Bomba wrote.

But he said, “Charlotte Volunteer Fire and Rescue Services believes these discussions should be happening in open meetings within the town rather than in so-called executive sessions.”

Another reason for concluding the selectboard’s executive session concerned starting a new fire and rescue service is because of conversation during the public comment portion earlier during the July 25 meeting. Tony Kinson of Charlotte came to the microphone to ask who manages the Charlotte Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department since it is such a big part of the town’s budget.

When told that the fire and rescue department is managed by its own board of directors, Kinson asked, “How do we monitor and control what goes on there?”

“You asked the question that’s been at the center of a lot of conversations,” selectboard member Louise McCarren replied. “We’re changing it.”

Since it is a nonprofit organization managed by an autonomous board of directors, Faulkner said the selectboard’s only opportunity to manage the fire department is during budget season when it makes its funding request for the next year.

“So, right now you’re looking at a different management, or there’s something going on there between the selectboard and the fire and rescue organization?” Kinson asked.

“One of the options which is under consideration is to turn it into a municipal system,” McCarren said, but the selectboard hasn’t made that decision, yet.

“All the people on the selectboard have no idea what’s involved in running the fire department, and I hope in their endeavors to make it a municipal system, they don’t try to go out and do it on their own,” said Fritz Tegatz, who was president of the Charlotte Volunteer Fire and Rescue board until July 1.

Tegatz and his wife moved to Utah in the spring. He was also on the selectboard for two terms for a total of six years. For five of those six years, Tegatz was the selectboard liaison to the fire department. And during his selectboard tenure, he was also a member of the fire and rescue department.

“As the liaison of the selectboard, I didn’t learn 75 percent of the stuff you need to know to run a fire department. Once I became the president of the fire department, I then learned how complicated it is with all the things that are involved with running an emergency service,” Tegatz said.

He worries that in an effort to change the fire department to a municipal system, the selectboard might throw out the baby with the bathwater, changing department personnel or operations so abruptly the fire and rescue department disappears.

Tegatz said the department has really improved in the last six months. During that time, Vergennes and other neighboring towns have had trouble getting enough members to respond to some calls, but Charlotte responded to every call it received. There needs to be at least two crew members to respond to a call with an emergency vehicle. When a department can’t get two crew members, it can’t respond.

Since December, no designated selectboard liaison or other selectboard member has attended any fire department meeting, he said.

Tegatz said misinformation has caused the selectboard’s dissatisfaction with the fire and rescue department.

The selectboard violated public meeting laws by going into executive session to discuss a nonexistent contract, he said.

“What contract? There is no contract. There’s a memorandum of agreement, which is a public document,” Tegatz said. “The public should know because they’re paying for it.”

This Monday, Aug. 8, the selectboard had a meeting scheduled with the Charlotte Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department that was postponed because of what Faulkner called “a misstep” on his part in notifying the department.

An over 10-minute discussion ensued as the board worked to reschedule the meeting to a time when all of the selectboard members could attend and after the fire department’s newly elected board of directors is installed Aug. 24.

But eventually, at the urging of Faulkner to have the meeting as soon as possible, the selectboard decided to begin the discussions with a special meeting at 7 p.m. next Monday, Aug. 15. The only item on the agenda will be the future of the fire and rescue department.

During this scheduling discussion, board member Lewis Mudge asked for Monday’s meeting to be a public meeting rather than an executive session.

Faulkner argued an executive session is needed “because we don’t want to get dirty laundry out.”

Krasnow said the conversation with the fire and rescue department will cross into many topics like personnel issues or contractual negotiations that should be discussed in executive session, but “my preference as well as many other people’s is to have as many conversations in open meeting as possible.”

Executive sessions should be used sparingly but appropriately, he said.