GREENWOOD TWP- As Greenwood Fire Department officials are awaiting a hearing in the election complaint filed over allegations they may have violated state election law, the Greenwood Town Board, …
GREENWOOD TWP- As Greenwood Fire Department officials are awaiting a hearing in the election complaint filed over allegations they may have violated state election law, the Greenwood Town Board, Tuesday, approved a policy change that prohibits the tape recording of fire department meetings by members without prior approval.
Tuesday’s decision marks a reversal of a township policy approved in 2015, that actually required the fire department to audio record and archive its meetings, a policy that apparently was never followed by fire department officials. Fire department member Jeff Maus, however, had been openly recording department meetings for some time. His recording of a March 2 meeting is the primary evidence in the ongoing legal action against fire chief David Fazio and assistant chief Mike Indihar.
The board acted on several fire department related issues during the three-hour-plus meeting, conducted via teleconference, which often made discussion difficult as board members tried to debate issues, but instead were often interrupting and cutting each other off mid-sentence.
The board voted 3-2, with Sue Drobac and Barb Lofquist voting against, to change the board policy first adopted in 2015 that required audio recording of fire department meetings.
The policy, which was usually annually updated, is posted on the township website. But at some point recently, the policy on the website was edited to remove fire department meeting recording.
Clerk Debby Spicer presented an updated policy list for board approval at the meeting. The updated list clarified some wording on township rental policies, as well as procedures for getting items placed on the meeting agenda. But it also removed the wording stating that fire department meetings were to be recorded.
Drobac questioned Spicer on why the policy on the website had been changed without board action.
“What is the reason for the change?” she asked. Spicer responded that fire department officials had told her they didn’t know they were supposed to be recording meetings and wanted it taken off. Spicer said she checked with the Minnesota Association of Townships (MAT), and they said such recordings were not required.
“So, we can change it if we want to,” Spicer said.
“I am wondering how a clerk can change our policies after talking to MAT,” said Drobac.
Spicer responded she was just doing what was requested.
“If we want to change it, I don’t care,” Spicer said. “I was asked to put it out there.”
Lofquist noted that such township policies are a board decision.
“It was a board decision to request all meetings recorded,” she said. “Recordings are accurate, not just written notes.
Why are they not comfortable with being recorded?” Lofquist asked.
Drobac asked all board members if they had directed Spicer to change the policy on the website, but Spicer again spoke up to say that she had done it after talking with MAT.
Chairman Mike Ralston then asked Spicer to explain her actions.
“I did not realize I needed a motion,” she said. “I changed it because the fire department wasn’t doing it. That is why this was put on the agenda.”
A member of the public had apparently asked Spicer for copies of recordings of the fire department meetings, pointing out that published township policy stated the meetings were being recorded.
A motion to require recording of fire department meetings failed on a 2-3 vote, with Ralston, Paul Skubic, and Carmen DeLuca voting against.
A motion to accept the amended policy that only requires recording of town board meetings passed 3-2, with Drobac and Lofquist voting against.
The board then discussed an addition to the fire department SOGs (standard operating guidelines) that added a new requirement that audio and video recording of meetings, trainings, and emergency response by members is prohibited without prior approval of the chief. Any member violating this policy is subject to disciplinary action including termination.
Chief Dave Fazio said members had approved this change, but the board has final say on the SOGs.
“This had been brought up informally for years,” Fazio said. “We had an individual taping the meeting. Several feel it undermines trust and morale in the fire department.”
“These are not public meetings,” Fazio said. “I wish this was done long ago.”
Lofquist asked if board members are allowed to attend these meetings. Fazio said it was permitted. Ralston said the department should post the meetings, in case more than two board members attend, to comply with the open meeting law.
“We were turned in for that already,” said DeLuca.
Drobac told the board that two former fire department administrative assistants, Ellen Trancheff and Julia Maki, recorded fire department meetings to help with preparation of minutes.
But Fazio said it was never a general practice.
“We have nothing to hide,” Fazio said. “It [recording] restricts our members from talking freely, for fear of lawsuits.”
Ralston said he agreed with the change, noting the fire department has been operating “efficiently” for the last five years without recording their meetings, so the policy was not necessary.
A vote to pass the amendment to the SOGs to prevent any recording passed 3-2 with Drobac and Lofquist voting against.
The board also agreed to increase the fire department annual pension amount from $2,500 to $3,000 per year of service. The fire department pension fund is managed through PERA. A PERA analysis said the current balance in the account could fund a pension amount between $3,300 and $3,700 at this time.
Lofquist questioned Fazio as to why the pension amount for Greenwood firefighters is so much higher than neighboring departments, which range from $500 to $2,000 a year.
“Why are you worth so much more than anybody else?” she asked. “I support the fire department…But I think this is greedy.”
Drobac asked if there was any increase in job duties for department members.
Fazio said the money in the pension account does not go back to the township if not used up.
Lofquist noted that the township was responsible for funding the pensions if the investments in the PERA account went down, such as during a stock market crash.
“A lot of people call the department a pension club,” Lofquist said. “You require two calls a year and attending 12 meetings. That doesn’t call for an increase.”
Lofquist said the department wasn’t volunteer service.
“Everybody gets paid for everything they do,” she said.
Ralston said the amount that township residents pay on their taxes to support the fire department is more than made up by savings in their homeowners insurance due to the department’s fire rating (ISO).
“I’m all for it,” he said. “I want to keep the department active and morale high.” He said department members go out in the middle of the night in bad weather to respond to fire and medical emergencies.
“I want to keep it that way,” he said.
A motion to increase the pension to $3,000 a year passed on a 3-2 vote, with Drobac and Lofquist voting against.
The Timberjay will report on the rest of this lengthy meeting in its April 23 edition.