Washington Evening Journal
111 North Marion Avenue
Washington, IA 52353
Brighton fire dispute sees progress, but hang-ups remain
Compromise closer than ever on some contentions, but some new conflicts arise
BRIGHTON — After months of public and private meetings, a dispute between the city of Brighton, its firefighters, and townships under its protection continued Monday night. While the parties involved say they’re getting closer to a resolution, the terms of a potential fire protection agreement continue to fluctuate.
"I think we came closer than we’ve ever been,“ Brighton Township Trustee Gordon Shelangoski said.
One point of contention is the nature of the fire protection agreement between government actors, called a 28E agreement under state code. Shelangoski said townships wanted a shared governing document, rather than an individualized agreement between the city and every other local government.
The move would contradict the advice of dispute mediator and consultant Patrick Callahan, given in January.
"I’ve talked to other townships, and we would really like that to be a single, 28E agreement,“ Shelangoski said. ”It just makes it so it’s less complicated if we ever have a problem like this again, if you do individual township agreements, you could have several different cases that the county attorney has to deal with instead of just one. And it could also be Brighton’s attorney, the legal fees could be bigger because of the complication of multiple 28E agreements.“
Brighton held an informal private meeting — with sub-quorum representatives from each township and city involved, as well as fire department volunteers — after its last council meeting. While the public and press weren’t invited to that discussion, it shaped some of the talking points Monday night.
For one thing, townships and firefighters said for the first time that they’d be willing to compromise on demands for a fire advisory board with binding budgetary authority. The revelation represents a sea change for the issue, which brought fire department volunteers to the brink of a service halt for the city in late November.
"The advisory board will be allowed to see budgetary stuff, but they won’t have control over budgetary stuff,“ Firefighter Mark Cobb said, when asked for clarification. ”That is kind of in the title of ‘Advisory Board,’ they can make recommendations regarding the budget but then the control can still be with the city council.“
On another point, firefighters and one city council member said they’d reached a tentative plan to rework department finances, with the city paying for repairs to the fire station and its vehicles with non-fire budget funds. Such items have cost the department around $6,000 in recent years, according to Council Member Cathy Rich.
“Volunteers would like to see the city pay for probably repairs and maintenance of the fire station,” she said. “I am very concerned with how much we charge our taxpayers here in town, but when you look at the expenses over the years, it really hasn’t been that much … replacing a door that was paid for out of the fire fund, and then meters for the utilities.”
Mayor Melvin Rich said establishing an advisory board of some sort was still a priority, and that such a group was a prerequisite to other policies, like a memorandum of understanding and reworked 28E agreement.
If established, the advisory board could serve as a public meeting forum for those items outside of a city council meeting.
"We need to establish the advisory board, and then get that together,“ he said.
Not every change brought forward momentum, however.
Council Member Mary Smith said she wanted more specificity for some items in the memorandum of understanding and proposed 28E, among other isolated issues.
“The annual report, I think that could be a monthly report, that we’re summarizing calls and membership updates, recruiting, and where they’re at with that,” she said.
Some members of the council, including Smith and Rose Jaynes said they may not support an advisory board, even if previous budget authority concerns were addressed.
Jaynes said an advisory board was unnecessary, and would needlessly inflate local government.
“If you need $2,000, get on the agenda, we’ve always had that,” Jaynes said. “I think this advisory board is going to be a pain in a lot of people’s sides … the communication can happen without another bureaucracy floating around a town of 600.”
Jaynes said she was frustrated with the closed-door nature of those background discussions. The city took care not to bring more than one council member and the mayor to the table, in order to avoid violations of state open meeting laws. While that made candid discussions easier, Jaynes said it left city officials out of the loop.
“I have no clue what you’re talking about,” she said. “It sounds like you’ve all agreed on something, and I don’t know what it is … I can’t be convinced if I can’t go to a meeting.”
The private, informal meetings, previously described as “just coffee and cookies” by city officials, also met resistance from members of the news media. Iowa Freedom of Information Council Executive Director Randy Evans said the private gatherings left community members in the dark.
“While they might have good motives for wanting to take discussions behind closed doors, that secrecy leads to a sort of distrust of how the process works,” he said. “People need to watch as the deliberative process is underway.”
While the city initially planned to hold another private meeting, Mayor Melvin Rich said on Tuesday that it would instead hold a public, special meeting in an effort to “keep everything aboveboard.” That meeting is tentatively scheduled for 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 14, although the time and date have not been officially posted yet.