Contentious discussion erupts over board member being the parent of an employee

Board members decide to address the family-member policy at a future meeting

TALENT — Judy Baalman was sworn in as a member of Jackson County Fire District No. 5's board of directors at the beginning of its Tuesday meeting, but not before another incoming board member objected because her son is employed by the district.

Chairman Dan Gregory swore in both newly elected officials despite concerns expressed by Bill Robertson.

A frequently energized discussion then ensued about the legality of the swearing-in and Robertson's request to change a district policy that allows board members' relatives to be on the staff.

"We're in violation of several public laws and may be open to a lawsuit for that," Robertson said after the oath was administered.

Robertson said Baalman should have disclosed that her son, Nick, was on the district staff when she ran for election but did not do so in the Voter's Pamphlet or during media contact. Baalman won in May with 43 percent of the vote over two other candidates. She previously has served on the district's budget committee.

A reporter's review of Oregon Revised Statues on fire districts and government ethics did not uncover laws that prohibit employment of relatives when a family member sits on a board.

Martial Henault, the district's attorney, said the board might be liable if it did not seat a member who was elected by the public.

Board policy prohibits hiring someone related to a board member by blood or marriage unless a majority of the five members consent.

"My advice at this point, since a policy is in place, is to get consent of the majority," said Henault.

Robertson then attempted to have the rule changed, suggesting that the consent provision be stricken from the regulation. He urged that Budget Committee membership also be covered by a ban on relatives.

Gregory called a five-minute recess early in the meeting as opinions flew back and forth. After public testimony, Gregory proceeded with a roll-call vote to allow an exception for Baalman's employment.

Gregory, Richard Scowden and Sean Curry voted to allow the exception. Robertson voted against while Baalman declared a conflict of interest and abstained.

Robertson, who was on the board from 1994 to 2011, has criticized board procedure and policies since that time. He actively opposed a $1.8 million equipment bond levy that the district presented to voters in November 2012. The levy failed 52 to 48 percent.

On Friday, Robertson sent an email to elected officials in Talent and Phoenix expressing his concern and asking them to attend the session. The district includes the municipalities and rural areas of southern Jackson County.

Talent City Councilwoman Darby Stricker attended and spoke during the public comment period. She advocated a change of the exception rule.

"One of the concerns that I have is that a person who is in a policy-making position is found to abstain time and time again," said Stricker, who described herself as being dogged in the pursuit of transparent government.

Baalman had abstained on two of three votes, declaring conflicts of interest, when Stricker made her comment. Baalman voted on all other matters later in the meeting.

"I think whatever you do ... needs to be publicized and transparent," said Jason Couch of Phoenix. "The public needs to know that you all are doing the job 110 percent above board."

In an emergency response organization, it is critical that all interactions be pure, said Couch, who fought fires in the Navy.

Consideration of the rule that allows relatives to be employed with board consent will be on the agenda of the next meeting. Henault said he would do more research of the matter.

Before the meeting, Gregory denied Robertson's requests to record the proceedings with a webcam. The board also will look at access to public records and potential use of a webcam at its next meeting.

In other business, Curry was elected chairman of the board. Scowden was elected vice chairman and Gregory secretary.

Tony Boom is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at tboomwriter@gmail.com.


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