After a lengthy negotiation process and an, at times, contentious debate, the Walnut Cove Board of Commissioners and Walnut Cove Fire and Rescue have agreed on a contract to provide fire service to the town for the coming fiscal year.
The final contract, approved by the Commissioners on a 3-2 vote, will provide the fire department $61,500 in funding for the year and removes a provision to require the fire department to adhere to open meeting laws, the provision which has been the major point of contention between the town and the department.
Fire Department Board of Directors Chairman Thomas Fagg told the town board that their attorney said the provision did not apply to the department because they were a non-profit organization.
Commissioner Sharon Conaway, noted that that may be true but it was a provision which the town wanted to have included in the contract to restore transparency on the fire department board which was she claimed was eliminated when the fire department revised its by-laws last summer.
“In maintaining the integrity of the public right to be involved, it is essential that we keep section 8 (the section requiring the department to adhere to open meeting laws) in the contract,” she said. “My challenge is that while no one has been asked to leave a meeting, participation is by invitation of the board. It gives them a right to select who can and cannot attend the meetings. There is documented proof that other volunteer organizations have included this in their contracts and they are being required to agree with open meeting laws.”
“Our attorney said that Section 8 does not apply to us,” replied Fagg. “If you would like for our attorney to come and address you, you can pay for his expenses and he will be glad to come. We presented a contract to the town accepting what you offered, but asked for Section 8 to be removed. We are here to provide a service. Our attorney told us that we were not violating open meeting laws. You are a board of four. We have nine on our board who agreed with this proposal. It is entirely up to you as to whether you will accept it or not.”
Commissioner Charles Mitchell made a motion to accept the contract presented by the fire department with the requirement to adhere to open meeting laws removed, but discussion between the board and fire department representatives continued before he could get a second on the motion.
“This is getting drug way out beyond where we want it to be,” said Mayor Lynn Lewis, who ultimately provided the tie-breaking vote on the contract.
Fire Department Board of Directors Member Kim Lewis, who also served many years as on the town Board of Commissioners, said the department’s bylaws had been changed to provide clarity and eliminate confusion stemming from multiple copies of previous bylaws.
“They wanted to have one copy that everyone looked toward,” she said. “I was perturbed when someone mentioned to me that the fire department was going to change to not being agreeable to open meeting laws, but I kept looking at it and I determined that in the statutes there is one set of open meeting laws for government agencies and another for non-profits and they do have some significant differences. “
She said she had never seen anyone not allowed into the meetings, nor had seen the fire department board hold a closed session meeting for any illegal reasons.
“Holding us to an open meeting requirement would be a contractual thing that all parties would have to agree to and we are not going to agree to it,” she said.
Mayor Lewis noted that the contracts are approved on an annual basis, saying the town could keep a close eye on the department and require an open meeting provision in future years if they saw the department violating the public trust.
“I truly believe that transparency with the department is key,” said Conaway, proposing that the town offer the department a contract for $50,000 and no requirement for open meetings or the contract for $61,5000 with the provision. “They could choose.”
Before the board could consider that option, the town’s attorney said they needed to resolve the earlier motion from Mitchell, which eventually got a second from Board Member Danny Hairston.
The vote on the motion came in at 2-2 with Mitchell and Hairston voting to accept the contract without the provision, and Conaway and Elwood Mabe voting against it.
“This community cannot support a paid fire department,” said Mayor Lewis. “It has to stop somewhere, they need to find a solution somewhere other than the town. I will go along with Commissioner Conaway that I would like to see the fire department opened up more to the community, but I will vote to accept the contract with out that provision and hopefully we never have to go through this again. I hope you leave you open meetings just as they are — open.”
Board unanimously approves budget
Following a public hearing during which no one spoke, the Board unanimously approved the 2016-17 Walnut Cove budget.
The $1,712,107 budget includes no tax increase for the town residents.
Nicholas Elmes may be reached at 336-591-8191 or on Twitter @NicholasElmes.