hydrangea blossoming

hydrangea blossoming
Hydrangea on the Edge of Blooming

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Encouragement, of a Sort, I Guess

The Fire Commissioners' meeting last night: It was mostly comedy last night, so perhaps tragedy tonight.  These meetings really are the closest we get to a legitimate theater company, I think.

I don't really know what to say: In some ways, it was like watching some kindergardeners on their first day trying to figure out how to do what the rest of us figured out a hundred years ago.  Specifically, to conduct a meeting.  We got an agenda, which was a good start, but we were missing Meursing (a phrase I thought I would probably never write, but it is meant only in the sense that he was not in attendance).  And it was Mr. Wilcott's first meeting as a Commissioner and, although it was clear that he knew how meetings were supposed to work, it was not clear he had yet figured out how to make this particular kind of meeting work.  I wish him good luck with this.  And Mr. Riffle, in charge for the first time, seemed fairly flummoxed at various times.  At one point, when he voted against his own motion, I couldn't tell whether he had changed his mind or didn't know what was being voted upon.  Periodically, when something worked, all the way through introduction, motions, discussion, and calls for the vote which were then followed by an actual vote, I wanted to run up and say, cheerfully, in my best teacher voice, "Good Job!!!"

There were of course no documents that were available for the dozen or so attendees to look at while the topics were being discussed and largely tabled (same result but in a different spirit at the Community Advisory Committee).  Perhaps next time we get documents, maybe even on the web in advance.  People had written letters it was announced and if you wanted to see them, you had to make an official records request, but we did not know why we would want to see them, or why we wouldn't as far as that goes.)  Someone had written a letter demanding back pay and that went to the lawyer (why?) but not to Mr. Wilcott.  Do we want to see it?  Could we see it if we wanted to?  Who knows?

There was a financial report in which the month's expenditures were about $15,000, almost $5,000 of which went to the lawyer; last month he only got $2,000, so his situation is improving.   There is an announcement that they are not going to repave the parking lot but just coat and stripe it.  Etc.

Two resolutions were introduced: one to increase the number of Commissioners to five, and a second to have the Commissioners stop getting paid for attendance at the meetings, not least because they have had so many special meetings that they are way over  budget for these payments.  [I spent about an hour today with Google trying to locate the practices of the other Pt. Roberts Commissions but you would be lucky to be able to find the names of the Commissioners on the other Districts.  So that research will require more personal attention.  At the moment, the only thing I know for sure is that the Parks Dept. Commissioners DON'T accept any payment. And I think i know there is a Health District, a Cemetery District, a Water District, and a Parks District, in addition to the Fire District, but I know the names of only a few Commissioners of any of them.)

Now, those resolutions would have been worth discussing, but they were put off until there was 'A Committee of the Whole,' which would be when Meursing too was in attendance.  Which leads one to believe that the two present Commissioners were split on their votes on this matter, although Mr. Riffle did not ever say anything in opposition.  So, who knows?  This did not cause me to want to say, "Good Job!"

Finally, the entire meeting almost collapsed on a proposal to increase the Chief's authority to buy things for the Fire Department.  It didn't increase his total budget, just the amount he could spend on various items in a single month without getting Commissioner approval.

Now, I would expect that such a request would note the fact that the current policy is to allow such purchases up to the amount of $2,500/month, and the Chief was asking for an increase to $10,000/per month.  Further, it would explain exactly why this four-fold increase was necessary.  For example, experience in the previous 6 months where $2,500 was clearly inadequate and when it was difficult to locate the Commissioners for approval and approvals needed to given quickly.  Or, perhaps, a survey of other Whatcom Fire Departments showing that Fire Chiefs routinely had such discretion at the $10,000 level.  But there was nothing at all of that sort.  Chief Carleton said he needed it and he didn't know how previous fire chiefs had done it because he hadn't been the fire chief here previously.  (Although, Meursing said emphatically, several months ago, that Carleton's experience as the substitute fire chief when Kiniski was off being paramedic trained was a big reason for making him the new fire chief.)

In any case, there was no case made by anybody for this increase.  The Lawyer had been consulted as to whether it was an out of line figure, but the lawyer is a lawyer, not a public policy expert, so I am confused about why you would want to be paying for that kind of advice.

There was a lot of excited discussion about this issue among the Commissioners, and among and with the attendees, even though there wasn't a comment period at this part of the agenda.  At one point there was a motion to do what Carleton wanted; at another point the motion was amended, and then the amendment was withdrawn; later on, the Chair said the motion was dead, although I actually did not spot the moment of death.  Eventually there was an attempt to make a deal with Carleton, asking him whether he would settle for $7,500.  (NOT a Good Job! moment, definitely.)

At the end, the whole thing, the motion or the topic at least appeared to have survived its near death experience and was to be brought back next month when Meursing returns to provide a second vote, I guess.   And the meeting was adjourned because there had already been enough public comment according to the Commissioners.  Probably enough for me, too.

It's a learning process to run an open meeting, to run a meeting where discussions are open to public view.  It's messy--nobody ever said transparency of public policy decisions was efficient or that the process was easy to understand or to conduct.   However, I am hoping that what I was seeing was the beginning of that learning process.  For a first step, Good Job!, I guess.  Though I do see a very long road ahead.  Another regular meeting in November, on Monday the 12th.  Do come; there are seats available in all the first four rows!


Anonymous said...

I understand that the Hospital District commissioners accept payment for meetings. However, they probably don't manage to fit in 4 meetings a month.

Arthur Reber said...

Wilmot, not Wilcot.... Judy, you missed the "sly fox" moment. Jeff retracted his amendment to reduce the discretionary spending to 7500 and moved the original motion, which was to move it to 10,000. Riffle looked surprised but pleased and called for a vote -- whereupon Wilmot voted "nay" thereby killing the motion. If you blinked you missed Stan's face -- he looked stunned, confused and bewildered all in one instant.

Mr. Wilmot is going to bring sanity to this group -- as much as one person can.

judy ross said...

Absolutely right; I did miss the feint and had to ask had the motion died. I saw the look but thought that Riffle had accidentally voted against his own motion. Apologies for misspelling Mr. Wilmot's name.