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Sierra foothills: Ambulance district admits open meeting violation

Exeter District Ambulance has admitted it violated the Brown Act, California’s open meeting law, and is taking steps to insure that the public is allowed to make comments. -db

The Foothills Sun Gazette
September 15, 2010
By Reggie Ellis

Exeter District Ambulance has made its mistakes, taken its lumps and is well on the road to recovery.

In a response letter to the 2009-2010 Grand Jury Final Report, Board President Kerry Elbisi wrote that the district concurred with all Grand Jury’s findings, including a clear violation of California’s open meeting law, but that the district is rectifying all of its mistakes and moving forward.

The Grand Jury’s investigation was in response to numerous complaints of conflicts of interest of board members and violations of the Ralph M. Brown Act, California’s law regulating public meetings. The Grand Jury claimed the ambulance board did not offer an opportunity for public comment at a public meeting on May 7, a violation of the Brown Act. The Grand Jury also said the district was unable to provide an agenda for that meeting.

‘The Board concurs and while the Board of Directors acknowledges the infraction of the Brown Act as per the finding, this infraction was unintentional and there was never a desire to deprive the public the opportunity to make a public comment,’ Elbisi wrote.

In its report, the Grand Jury stated that ‘no conflict of interest was substantiated’ for the four board members who were city employees (City Manager John Kunkel, Assistant Public Works Director Daymon Qualls, FTO Kerry Elbisi, Officer Brett Inglehart) and another who had a contract with the city (Sonny Lowry, owner of Body and Paint by Sonny). The claims of conflict of interest were further debunked when voting records showed that no more than one eligible citizen has filed candidacy papers to run for a seat on the board since 2000. In fact, when Kunkel resigned in November 2009, the board did not receive applications until more than 60 days after the vacancy and appropriately turned the decision over to the Board of Supervisors. On Feb. 9, Supervisors appointed Garrett German, a financial advisor with no ties to city government.

However, the finding went on to state that ‘there were occasions where the City employees were receiving pay from the City at the same time they were conducting Board business and also receiving pay for serving as a Board Member.’

Elbisi agreed with the statement. But while there may be some impropriety with the practice, local city attorneys said they were not sure of any law that prohibited a salaried city employee receiving compensation while serving on a board.

The Grand Jury also said the district was in violation of state law by having one board member who failed to file a Form 700 statement of economic interests with the California Fair Political Practices Commission. Elbisi agreed with the statement, but clarified that the district had the document but was unable to locate it and that now ‘There is a current Form 700 on file for each board member.’

In another violation of state law, the report stated that ‘One board member who has been on the board for more than 10 years has no record of ethics training until Dec. 19, 2009.’ Passed in 2005, AB 1234 requires that all board members receive ethics training every two years.

‘The Board member who had not completed the ethics training complied with the training as of Dec. 12, 2009. There are currently three board members who need to recertify and that is in the process and will be completed soon. We appreciate the Grand Jury bringing this to our attention and compliance will be maintained in the future.’

Moving forward, Elbisi wrote that the district is complying with each of the Grand Jury’s recommendations. Elbisi wrote that the board will hold an open session and provide an opportunity for public comment at every meeting, including special meetings with only one item for closed session on the agenda. Elbisi also wrote that a podcast of Tulare County’s Government 101 presentation ‘has been recorded and will be distributed to each board member along with handout material. Each board member will listen to the podcast and acknowledge they have received the training. It will be a policy that all new members of the Exeter District Ambulance Board of Directors will listen to the podcast of the Government 101 training.’

All of the complaints to the Grand Jury were filed ‘shortly after the Board decided to contract out the management of the ambulance services’ to Lifestar, a private ambulance company based in Tulare. However, all of the incidents mentioned in the report happened prior to Lifestar officially taking over on July 22, 2009. Jackie Paull, operations manager for Lifestar and Exeter District Ambulance, said that the ambulance district board meeting have been much quieter recently and that the district is running smoothly. The district’s response times are thriving, even to Three Rivers, under county-wide dispatch system implemented by the Central California Emergency Management Services Agency. The district has already purchased two new ambulances and other equipment upgrades. When the board voted to hire the private company to manage the public ambulance agency for the first time in its more than 30 year history, Board President John Kunkel defended the position by saying the move would save the district over $100,000. Despite modest estimates in last year’s budget claiming that the savings would only be about $29,000, the district’s 2009-2010 Fiscal Year ended with a net income of $291,604.89.

Exeter’s ambulance district was formed in March 1977 after 63% of the voters living in the 592 telephone prefix approved the special tax district. The district encompasses all of Exeter and Lindcove and extends west to Road 176, east to Road 236, north to Avenue 320 and south to Avenue 256.

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