The Sunsites-Pearce Fire District Board made two unanimous decisions in a row during its special meeting Monday night, voting 4-0 to post the position of Interim Fire Chief for seven days, and the other to obtain cost estimates on hiring someone to update the District’s website.
The fifth member of the board, Robert Fino, arrived to the meeting about 15 minutes late, so was not present for the two votes.
These decisions follow closely on the heels of the Board’s 3-2 vote to terminate Chief Paul Petersen’s contract “without cause,” during an emotionally charged meeting lasting about two hours last Tuesday evening at the Richland Fire Station.
Petersen declined comment.
About 40 people spoke during two call-to-the-public sessions held at the beginning and toward the end of the Feb. 5 meeting.
Some expressed concerns that Petersen’s loss would result in inadequate fire and medic service, or complete closure of the Fire Department, while others said that the Department would close due to alleged financial issues, and that those issues needed to be addressed.
When it came time for the meeting’s third agenda item, Treasurer Cletus Frei moved to terminate Petersen’s contract without cause, which was seconded by Clerk Rebel Jones.
During the resulting discussion, Board Member Candace Roll said she felt that the only board members who should be allowed to vote on this item were Jones, Fino, and herself.
She pointed out that the other two board members – Frei and Chairman Roger Lance – “have only been working with the Fire Chief for two months.”
Since the agenda item was “review, discuss, and possibly vote: Review or terminate with or without cause Chief Petersen’s contract,” Fino said that the review should have come first.
Fino said that a review doesn’t merely involve discussion, “but provides the proper paperwork for each board member to evaluate how the Chief is doing.”
He said that he felt terminating Petersen’s contract without cause was “totally wrong,” as the Board had not completed his review.
“I will vote against it,” said Fino, adding that he knew he would be out-voted that night.
He said he felt the current board had not put forth the effort to work with Petersen.
Fino then asked for the original motion be redacted, and a new motion made that would “allow this to go the proper route” to show respect for the person under review.
Jones began to read some concerns he had with Petersen’s current contract.
Fino interrupted Jones, saying that since this was not a review, Jones should not be allowed to read his reasons.
He explained that doing so would be a violation of open meeting law.
Frei asked Lance to control the meeting, and Lance instructed Jones to proceed.
Jones said that the Board had voted on an initial salary of $48,000 per year; but that in the current contract, the salary had been changed to $55,000 without a vote by the Board.
“This means that a $7,000 increase was made without official Board approval,” he said.
Jones pointed out that the word “alcohol” had been removed from a paragraph regarding termination.
He said that this is in conflict with the drug and alcohol testing section under “Conditions of Employment” in the SPFD Policy, Procedures, and Guidelines, “which apply to all prospective and current” Fire Department employees.
Jones quoted the policy, and then added that omission of the word “alcohol” is in conflict with State statute, “which applies to any employee working in an occupation under ARS Title 32.”
He said that in the section on “Employee Terms and Conditions,” actual working hours are not clearly defined as to a set time during the day.
Instead, the contract reads, “the employee agrees that at least 40 hours a week must be devoted to district business,” said Jones.
Regarding that same section, Jones described the spending authority given to the Fire Chief as “too vague.”
“No numerical amount has been set,” he added.
In the section on “Compensation,” on paid time off (three weeks paid vacation), does not define a “working day.”
“This could mean the difference between having the Fire Chief take 21 days off or 15,” said Jones, adding that the current contract does not state how paid-time off is to be accrued.
In the same section, the cost of living adjustment/salary increase is based on the other employee’s increases.
“Since the Fire Chief sets the pay raises given other employees, he is in essence setting his own salary increase,” Jones said.
He also said that an attorney should review the indemnification clause at the end contract, “as it is too broad and could have the potential to involve the SPFD in a lawsuit unnecessarily.”
Fino said that the errors should be corrected instead of terminating it.
“As a Board, we correct the Chief’s contract. There is no need to terminate the Chief’s contract,” he said.
Fino went onto say that he didn’t understand why Jones was blaming the Board, which he was on at the time, for not liking the contract drawn up by the Cochise County Attorney.
“It is up to the Board to correct that,” Fino said. “You are partly responsible for this ill-written contract.”
Jones replied that when the contract was brought before the Board, he had requested that changes be made, but they never were.
“I did not vote for the contract because the changes had not been made,” he explained.
Lance said he recalled attending that meeting, and that at the time Jones had made those recommendations to (former Chairman) Fino, but was ignored.
“We were voting on the whole contract, and not pieces,” Fino replied.
“Instead of speculation, check the facts, check the minutes,” he said.
“If I am wrong, I will admit it. We cannot terminate the Chief for our mistakes.”
In the end, Frei called for the question, reminding Lance that there was a motion and second on the table.
Fino made a point of order, saying he hoped the Board understood that it had to give Petersen 60 days written notice of termination, adding, “I hope the Board will do that.”
Fino and Candace Roll cast the two dissenting votes, with Lance, Frei, and Jones voting in favor.
Immediately after the vote, Fino asked to be excused from the meeting, and Lance granted his permission.
There were outbursts by some members of the audience saying, “Recall the Board,” before Lance banged down the gavel, calling for order.
In a Feb. 5 letter to Petersen, Lance gave him the 60 days notice.
Petersen was placed on administrative leave, effective immediately, until Saturday, April 6, the date on which his contract will end.
“This means that you must not report to work on Wednesday, Feb. 6, nor any day thereafter for the 60 day period,” said Lance.
The Feb. 5 letter also instructed Petersen, “you must return any and all District property, including but not limited to: keys, electronic devices, phones, computers, vehicles, documents, records, credit cards, uniforms, and equipment,” by noon on Feb. 6.
“You must immediately give to the Chairman of the Board the passwords to any and all computers and computer programs that relate to the District,” Lance said.
“The Board draws to your attention” State statutes that “make it a criminal offense to obstruct governmental operations and tamper with public records, or to assist or command anyone else to do so…” the letter said.
The next regular meeting of the SPFD Board is scheduled for 6 p.m. on Tuesday, March 12, at the Sunsites Community Center.
(Other issues discussed at the Feb. 5 and Feb. 11 SPFD meetings will be covered at a later date in the Range News.)