Props to the Northfield News for the Fire Relief Association ethics story

Northfield NewsSaturday’s Northfield News carried a front page story titled Concerns arise over Fire Department expenses; Northfield officials fear funding is going toward non-firefighting expenses.  (The headline used for the online version: Ethical questions arise over Northfield Fire Relief Association expenses.)

Griff Wigley with May 12, 2012 edition of Northfield NewsI’ve done four fire department/association-related blog posts since January (here, here, here, and here) as well as a three more on attorney David Hvistendahl (here, here, and here) who’s representing the fire and rescue squad associations. It’s a complex and constantly evolving issue.

So it’s really helpful to have a someone else, in this case, Northfield News reporter Suzy Rook, digging into the story, too.   And for the first time, the paper cited Locally Grown (twice) in a story:

Fire Department officials, including Fire Chief Gerry Franek, did not respond to several requests from the News for association financial records or comment. Assistant Fire Chief Tom Nelson at an April 24 City Council meeting said documents posted on the blog Locally Grown are 2010 and 2011 relief association check registers. But those registers don’t clearly state how and where monies were spent, and are likely a listing of transactions from several accounts compiled into a single document…

The association had a net revenue of $14,263 in 2011, according to a Gambling Control Board report to the Legislature. Of that, $4,110 was used for what’s termed lawful purpose expenditures. In 2010, its net receipts were $17,730. Of that, $8,354 was used for lawful expenditures. Figures provided to the state Gambling Control Board don’t match the association’s 2010 tax return, a document Assistant Fire Chief Tom Nelson says he provided Locally Grown. According to that document, the association lost $2,209 in 2010.

I appreciate that. Follow Suzy Rook on Twitter @rooksuzy.

15 comments to  (Including 4 Discussion Threads) Props to the Northfield News for the Fire Relief Association ethics story

  • 1
    Griff Wigley says:

    Suzy Rook has a sidebar to today’s Nfld News update on last night’s Council meeting. Excerpt:

    The city administrator and finance director say they have asked for the information on several occasions, including last month during a City Council meeting to help understand the inner workings of the relief association and rescue squad.

    Questions over how donations to the fire relief association are being spent have also arisen, particularly for an annual banquet attended by fire fighters and their invited guests. The steak and lobster dinner with an open bar and entertainment has reportedly been paid for with those donations.

    While the state auditor says the brunt of that information isn’t public, Fire Department officials, who have failed to respond to News requests for the documents, haven’t cited state statutes requiring the documents remain private.

  • 2
    Griff Wigley says:

    Nfld News editorial: Public, city of Northfield deserve transparency by Fire Relief Association

    It doesn’t appear that the Relief Association has done anything illegal, as the organization is not required to release documents to city officials. But, the association is not restricted to release the documents, either. At its core, this is an issue of public confidence. It is fair for people to know where their money is going, and furthermore, since the fire department is a city entity, it is fair for city officials to be in the know as well. The Northfield Fire Relief Association needs to be more transparent so donors and city officials know how money is spent.

    • 2.1
      kiffi summa says:

      I’m known… or thought to be… pretty tough on ‘doing the right thing’, i.e. as much transparency as possible. But I don’t require, or even feel the need of any more info from the Fire Relief Assn; I just need them to do the best job they can.
      And I just don’t get the angst over the donations; who would not ask what their donation would be used for? Does anyone who is upset by this issue refuse to give money to The March of Dimes or any other huge charity because of the %age that goes to administrative salaries and costs, rather than research and treatment?

      What is the big deal about them having a party for themselves , after all the interrupted dinners, birthday parties, holidays, when their 24-7 beepers sound?

      And as far as the “city” having info, the remarks made in public meetings are not conducive to good relationships … too many snide remarks about different aspects of the fire fighting system, about both our volunteers, and the Rural Fire Assn.

      The whole fire fighters “issue” is just being blown way out of proportion, IMO. I am personally VERY thankful that they do their job so well that I have a good fire rating on my insurance.

  • 3
    Griff Wigley says:

    Today’s Nfld News: Rescue Squad’s agreement with speedway concerns Northfield leaders

    The consultant’s June 2011 report to the city found that the three city employees who also serve on the Rescue Squad were being paid overtime when they worked the raceway events. Wheeler, the human resources director, said that those employees have since been asked not to work the events in order to reduce city personnel costs.

    While payments from the speedway to the Rescue Squad, according to the 2009 report, “are used to purchase rescue equipment,” documents showing the use of funds haven’t been provided to the city. A Northfield News request to Fire Chief Gerry Franek for Rescue Squad documents has gone unanswered.

    • 3.1
      kiffi summa says:

      Griff: What’s up? “Stirring the Pot”” again? That’s a very selective quote out of an article that raises as many questions as it answers…

      Look at this sentence at the end of the second paragraph : ” … the non-profit Northfield Rescue Squad, a governmental entity separate from the city and Northfield Fire Department”.
      A sentence like that then needs a more defined explanation of the relationship if it is “separate”.

      Then in paragraph four: concerns about the use of city employees and vehicles,and the resulting liability, are contradicted by a statement in P#3: ” … The League of MN Cities Insurance Trust, says Northfield , its employees and equipment are covered”
      and, in P#5 : “… Northfield’s Human Resources Director, Elizabeth Wheeler said she’s known “for years” that the city’s insurer felt its coverage was sufficient”.

      Now… the League of Mn Cities is often quoted as being the official solid opinion on city matters, but not now it would seem…
      Unusual to have the Administrator and a Department Head disagreeing; one would think this would have been an internal discussion…

      The second P of the story says the new agreement between the Rescue Squad and Elko Speedway was signed January 30th, the third P (as quoted above) says the Squad is “separate” from the City/FireDepartment, but in the back page portion of the NFNews story, it says Chief Taylor asked rescue squad leaders to “end the contract until a proper agreement could be assembled” and also states that Taylor had “discovered” that a new contract had been signed, but not been reviewed by the city’s attorney, or gone to the Council for approval.

      **** So… what is the relationship between the city and the rescue squad?
      Before any assumptions are made about how each ‘side’ of this relationship operates, that relationship needs to be spelled out, or else … once again … this looks like a bit of a ‘vendetta’ against the Firefighters, and all their various connections to the city.

      If all of these disagreements with various aspects of firefighting, and its related associations and squads, are simply the outcome of a structural change of a departmental nature, i.e., the Police Chief, mark Taylor, is now the Department Director of Public Safety, then that needs to come to the fore instead of all these inter-related squabbles, and have that structural departmental discussion occur.
      This can’t be pleasant for Chief Taylor , either, and it seems to be taking an awful lot of time in a lot of directions; I would just as soon the Police and Fire all went about their business amicably… because Public Safety is one of the prime, if not the most important, along with infrastructure, functions of the City.

    • 3.2
      Griff Wigley says:

      Kiffi, again, I really don’t see any ‘vendetta’ going on. I think Mark Taylor, Tim Madigan, and Mary Rossing are trying to change a now-problematic and complex situation that’s been decades-in-the-making. And they’re having to do it at time when I assume they’d much prefer to be focused on the new Safety Center facilities. This has to be a huge headache for them.

      • 3.2.1
        kiffi summa says:

        Griff: here’s why I used the word “vendetta”: there has been discord between the firefighters since the Dept of Public Safety was created with one Dept Head, i.e. Police Chief Taylor. That’s close to two years now, I believe.

        Whatever the origin of that “discord” is, it has never been addressed except as finding fault with (now) every aspect of the firefighting process; and the firefighters side has not been presented (allowed to be presented?) to the public, by that group, in the way the administrative organizational side has been.

        The dissatisfaction of the general public with the firefighters, and the fire protection we enjoy seems to not be present at even a minimal percentage of that expressed by the city staff. In fact I have heard no one trash the firefighters in all the years I’ve lived here.

        What is the source of the angst? And if there is a level of mismanagement at the fire department that is implied by all these concerns re: their operations, why is that not just stated loud and clear, up front?
        And if there are all these long term supposedly unsatisfactory ‘contracts’, whose fault is that? Where does the responsibility lie to make sure the ‘city’ has functional operational contracts in place?

        Too much one- sided innuendo, without fact, and too much shifting of responsibility…

    • 3.3
      Griff Wigley says:

      I chose that excerpt from Rook’s article because it’s a good example of the financial problems associated with the two activities funds (Fire Relief Association and the Rescue Squad Association) about which we still know very little. Consultant Michelle Soldo’s report says:

      The City pays FFs overtime to man that vehicle during race track events… Elko reimburses the City for employee time by making a donation to a fund exclusively maintained and used by the FD. Elko also makes a donation to the FD’s rescue squad fund.

      I’m glad this practice has stopped but financial transparency is still needed since taxpayer money was used to pay the overtime for X years. And it makes things worse when the Rescue Squad hires Hvistendahl to make sure that the City and we taxpayers don’t see what that money got spent on. How can we citizens not think that they’ve got something to hide?

  • 4
    Curt Benson says:

    Griff and Kiffi--is this a reasonable recap?

    The city was paying city employees overtime to be on site at Elko’s events, using the Rescue Squad’s truck. Elko didn’t reimburse the city for it’s overtime pay. Instead, Elko gave funds to two FD/Rescue Funds whose financials are secret. In fact, an attorney was hired to make sure the financials are kept secret. Who is writing the checks to Hvistnedahl? If the checks come from one of the secret funds, isn’t it possible that the FD/Rescue squad is paying for an attorney to maintain secrecy of the funds that were funneled to them by Elko? ie the city may be indirectly paying for an attorney to shield them from Elko’s repayment of overtime wages. This is speculation--hopefully the attorney is paid in some other way, but it is obvious that transparency is needed. Isn’t it time to stop the sneakiness?

    I’m thinking that the city has too many employees if it can loan them to a race track--for no direct reimbursement. Exactly how many hours of employee overtime has Northfield subsidized Elko with? Or is this info also double top secret?

    Also, if Northfeild doesn’t need its rescue gear in Northfield during Elko’s many events, why does Northfield need that equipment at any other time? Is the Rescue Squad placing a race track’s needs over the needs of the Northfield area?

    • 4.1
      kiffi summa says:

      Curt: Once again the NFNews article has left a confusion instead of a clarification, because it says that Elko paid $75 dollars an hour to have a rescue squad presence (and that seems very low to me), and then it says the city was paying employees overtime and did not wish to do that, understandably.

      So… what was Elko paying $75 an hour for, the equipment? and why was the city paying the rescue squad, OR city employees, overtime for as opposed to however else the rescue squad is reimbursed?

      See what I mean? there is no conclusion to be drawn from the NFNews article without mopre investigative clarification, IMO.

  • 5
    Curt Benson says:

    Kiffi, I agree that the $75/hour ambulance time section was incomplete and confusing. However, I wouldn’t negate the whole article because of one weak section.

    What do you think about the city paying overtime for rescue squad members to provide services to a private business miles from Northfield while not protecting Northfield? And after getting paid overtime from city funds, receiving secret amounts of payback from the private business--paid into secret accounts controlled by the Rescue Squad. Is there a more benign explanation for this?

    To quote Paula Poundstone, “No matter how cynical I get, it’s never enough.”

    • 5.1
      kiffi summa says:

      Curt: obviously I thought there was more in the article that was less than fully informative: see above…

      But as far as the city paying overtime etc, i.e., all the issues you mention above.. the question is why the city was doing these things, and why have a contract that is structured in this way, or did the contract impose these overtime payments on them, and why even enter into a contract like that if they disapproved… do you see what I’m saying, Curt?
      Both parties that have a contract have structured that contract, and are bound by it.
      Why is it now all the fault of the Rescue Squad for the existing situation? and
      Why doesn’t the article explain the contractural agreement better, instead of just raising a lot of questions in the reader’s mind, and not satisfying those in the written piece? and
      Are the Rescue Squad accounts required to be public or not? and

      As I said, IMO, too much innuendo…

  • 6
    Griff Wigley says:

    Nfld News: Northfield EMS manager: Rescue Squad contract doesn’t affect emergency preparedness

    Northfield Hospital’s EMS manager says a contract between Northfield Rescue Squad and Elko Speedway doesn’t impact the safety of area residents. Brian Edwards, who heads the hospital’s ambulance service, says that he can’t remember a time in the last 16 years in which the contract affected the care available to Northfielders needing emergency medical services.

    The contract, now being reviewed by city leaders and Northfield’s attorney, requires the Rescue Squad’s ambulance and two rescue squad personnel to be at specific races. But even though the rescue squad ambulance is out of town, Edwards and Northfield Public Safety Director Mark Taylor say the squad’s heavy rescue truck and rescue equipment remains in the Safety Center, ready for area emergencies.

  • 7

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