Washington Evening Journal
111 North Marion Avenue
Washington, IA 52353
No action on Brighton fire agreement, but dialogue opens
Disputing parties call Tuesday night council meeting most productive conversation to date in fire dept. controversy
BRIGHTON — The Brighton City Council took no action on a fire-related advisory board, memorandum of understanding or intergovernmental agreement on their meeting agenda Tuesday night.
Council members said last-minute changes to the language of those items from adviser Patrick Callahan — who the city hired to mediate a tense dispute over control of department funds — left them too uncertain for a vote. Officials said Callahan had modified his recommendations in response to feedback from prior meetings, but that those changes hadn’t reached city inboxes until around 4 p.m. the day of the meeting. Some council members said they hadn’t read the new language yet.
“I really wanted to act on this tonight, but I think when we get something at 4 o’clock, no one’s had a chance to look at it,” Council Member Cathy Rich said. “It’s very important, but in this case, we have to table it until the next meeting.”
Additionally, City Attorney Katie Mitchell said a proposed memorandum was too vague to call for a vote.
“This memorandum of understanding, I think, sets out a lot of good things, but … the city needs to know who they’re entering an agreement with,” she said. “It reads two different ways to me.”
Attendees praise communication, and promise more
Some said the delay was frustrating, a continuation of deadlock in a disagreement spanning back to November of 2021. In an effort to keep momentum, officials said they planned to meet informally — and privately, without a quorum — with representatives from each disputing party before the next regular city council meeting.
“Let’s get some discussion started,” Volunteer Firefighter Mark Cobb said. “Because we’re kicking the damn can down the road … let’s do that instead of waiting another two weeks for nothing to happen. I think the quicker we get some wheels turning here, it’s going to calm nerves, and the quicker we’ll get to the finish line.”
The decision to take no action came after over an hour of back-and-forth between city officials, township trustees and fire department volunteers present at the meeting. The dialogue broke from traditional practice in the city which, like most, normally allows public comments only during designated periods of meetings.
Those who spoke said it was a breakthrough, and evidence of an advisory board’s utility.
“That’s been the whole problem, it started in the beginning, it was a lack of communication,” Brighton Township Trustee Doug Moothart said. “There’s been more communication here tonight than I’ve heard in the last two years. If we don’t solve that problem, you’re never going to solve these other problems.”
The discussion got many on the same page about details in the dispute, including a rough timeline of its history, and the revelation that a $2,190 payment of the recent mediator was billed to the fire department’s budget, rather than the city’s general fund.
Still no sign of compromise on advisory board authority
One sticking point remains unsettled. All in attendance agreed on the need for a fire advisory group, with representatives from each township, city and the fire department. But they remained at odds over what kind of power that board should have.
Townships and firefighters have proposed a body with the power to settle budget disputes between the city and its fire department. The rhetoric stems from the city’s failure to make its annual fire fund contribution for 2021 until February of 2022, using money from the American Rescue Plan Act.
The city, however, has long advocated for a board with only the power to advise its council. While Callahan claimed alternatives were potentially illegal, townships and their representation from the County Attorney’s Office said state code had no issue with delegating budgetary authority to another group. Those officials cited their own consultations with the Iowa Attorney General’s Office.
“Under Iowa Code Section 28E.3, any power of the city of Brighton may be shared with other public agencies under a 28E agreement,” said Assistant Washington County Attorney Jennifer Lerner in one email to a Brighton Township trustee. “There is nothing to compel the city of Brighton to concede this power, but it has the ability to do so if it chooses.”
The city has not given a legal opinion in response to the claim from trustees. Mitchell said she didn’t have enough information to provide one at the Tuesday night meeting.
“It says, ‘County Attorney John Gish consulted with the Iowa Attorney General’s Office,’ … I don’t know if that was a phone conversation, email, I don’t have enough information at this point to say this is a correct statement of the law,” she said. “I cannot advise the city … I will continue to research and investigate information that the council directs me to investigate.”
Even if the authority exists, no council members have yet voiced willingness to bestow it on an advisory board. Several have said the opposite.
“My opinion is that we were elected, and one of the duties is to provide fire protection to the town,” Council Member Rose Jaynes said. “I’m not willing to give up control of the money.”
Mayor Melvin Rich said the city could establish the advisory group before committing to nuances of its authority. Still, he said it should start without budgetary control default.
"A resolution could be changed any time,“ he said. ”What I would like to do is get at least one group together, sit down, and start there. We’re not going to give ownership of the fire department away.“
Brighton Township Trustee Brighton Township Trustee Gordon Shelangoski said the city should apply that rhetoric, but default to budget authority for the board.
“If you want to try something for a year, try it with control,” he said. “Because that’s the way you can be certain you’re going to have a fire department.”
The disagreement threatens to leave the debate at an impasse, with trustees showing no desire to sign off on a board without a final say in budget disputes.
“An advisory board without a vote, in my opinion, is just a total joke,” Clay Township Trustee Chuck Meacham said. “It’s a feel-good thing, but … If there wasn’t going to be something covert with the money we’re going to give you, why wouldn’t you want to give us a vote? I just don’t understand that.”