June 3, 2014
The volunteers of the Todd Fire Department received some welcome news on Friday when it was announced by Watauga County Sheriff Len Hagaman that after an investigation into the department’s finances no irregularities were discovered.
The news that there were no financial irregularities found should now put to rest any questions from the Todd Community at large about the department’s administration of its operating funds.
However, there are two important lessons we’ve learned by unfortunate incident.
First and foremost, transparency is vitally important for organizations like volunteer fire departments.
The corporate structure of a VFD is unique in several important ways. It operates using tax dollars, grants and donations, but isn’t required to meet the transparency standards required of most public agencies in that its financial records are not considered public records.
As a result, the only members of the “public” that can access financial information about the department are those who live or own property within the district the department serves.
While a department may have the legal right to deny the inspection of financial information to anyone outside the community, we believe allowing any member of the public to request financial formation should be allowed.
Denying access only creates the impression of having something to hide.
We want to be clear on this issue, we are not accusing the Todd VFD of denying access to its financial information.
Todd VFD Chief Chris Welch answered each request we made for the information about the department and made it clear to us the department had nothing to hide.
For that, we commend him and the department’s leadership.
However, denying access by the media at the department’s annual meeting certainly created a different impression.
Going forward, we would suggest allowing the media access to all volunteer fire department meetings – that includes here and statewide.
With the unusual structure of the volunteer fire departments in North Carolina, we believe the only method to allow unrestricted access would be a provision written into the state’s open meetings and records laws.
The other important lesson provided by this episode is the importance of keeping up with your community’s volunteer fire department; it is a civic duty, like voting, that requires at least a minimum level of commitment.
We’d venture a guess that during the most recent round of annual meetings of the county’s volunteer fire departments over the last two months only a couple of hundred folks were in attendance. And those folks were probably those who actively volunteer as firefighters.
Theoretically, there could have been thousands who attended the annual meetings.
The county’s volunteer fire departments provide a tremendous service to their communities. Not only do departments provide fire protection and emergency personnel support, but their services allow property owners to pay less in homeowner’s insurance.
Providing that service costs big dollars. And big dollars can sometimes create big problems.
With transparency and an involved community, those potential problems become much less likely to occur.