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Fire, rescue panel expansion sought

Thu., July 2, 2009

Newman Lake commission, spurred by critics, ask county to put issue on ballot

Newman Lake Fire and Rescue voters may add two commissioners to the district’s three-member board, a move critics hope will dilute the influence of two commissioners who appear to have violated the state open meetings law.

Commissioners Clayton Andersen and Eileen Weyrauch, who are the targets of the proposal, joined Commissioner Bob Neu in asking Spokane County commissioners to place the issue on the Nov. 3 general election ballot.

Afterward, Andersen – who practices law in Coeur d’Alene – declined to comment on the legality of his use of e-mails to discuss district business with Weyrauch. But Weyrauch described the private correspondence as a mistake she doesn’t intend to repeat.

The correspondence indicates Weyrauch and Andersen felt the district was spending too much on paid administrators, and hard feelings resulted when they cut two deputy chiefs’ pay. Deputy chiefs Toni Halloran and Kathie Neu have long histories of service, and they ran the otherwise all-volunteer force before Chief Keith Yamane was hired last fall.

The subject also was ticklish because Kathie Neu is married to Bob Neu. The commissioner recuses himself from issues involving her job.

In one e-mail exchange in February, Andersen sought Weyrauch’s counsel on a blunt memo to Yamane. In it, Andersen called Yamane a dog being wagged by the tail with regard to his support of the deputy chiefs.

Weyrauch agreed with Andersen’s comments and pledged her support, but suggested a personal conversation with Yamane might be “more productive.”

After Friday’s special meeting, Weyrauch said she regretted the e-mails “and the judgment that went with that,” but especially the conflict that “led to venting by e-mail.”

Weyrauch said she thought incorrectly that private discussions were permissible among commissioners as long as there was no formal action. But the open meetings law applies to deliberations, discussions, considerations, reviews and evaluations as well as decisions.

Closed sessions are allowed only on certain topics, during properly announced meetings. Even then, “final action” must be taken openly.

Andersen said he stands on his record and trusts voters to sort out the issues.

“I’ve worked hard – long hours – trying to do things that are best for the district,” he said. “The voters will ultimately decide whether I remain or not.”

He said he thought the disputed e-mails were taken out of context.

They were obtained by former district secretary Kathleen Small, who manages the Pasadena Park Irrigation District. Andersen said he thought Small was trying inappropriately to influence commissioners’ budget decisions because of friendship with the deputy chiefs.

Small said she sought district e-mails after observing meetings in which decisions were made without discussions.

The deputy chiefs “are beloved by the department,” and efforts to cut their pay were hurting morale and the district’s ability to recruit new volunteers, Small said.

District residents Byron and Lynn Woehrle said morale among department volunteers was their primary reason for signing the petition to add two commissioners as well as a petition calling on Andersen and Weyrauch to resign – which they declined to do.

Volunteer firefighter Bob Kolva said Weyrauch and Andersen are trying to micromanage the district – as they did when he was fired as the district’s unpaid chief in 2005.On Friday, commissioners said they were convinced the 99-signature petition to expand the board satisfied state requirements.

Elections supervisor Mike McLaughlin said 79 signatures were needed, representing 10 percent of the 783-voter turnout in the last commissioner election in November 2007.

Andersen objected to a draft resolution that said commissioners thought increasing the size of the board would be “in the best interests of the district.” He said he didn’t know of any fire districts as small as Newman Lake’s that have five commissioners.

Commissioners spent a few minutes crafting new, neutral language and then voted unanimously to send the resolution to county commissioners.

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