While it may be uncomfortable over the next several weeks for the members and board of the Todd Volunteer Fire Department while an investigation of the department’s finances is conducted, it is what is needed to help answer any questions of alleged wrongdoing.
Last week, the Watauga County Board of Commissioners authorized its county sheriff, Len Hagaman, to begin an investigation into the department after it didn’t answer questions in a time considered adequate about its finances.
Specifically, there were questions raised about two expenditures by the department during the 2012 fiscal year. One involved the purchase of equipment for the department and another about a payment to a contractor for repair work on the firehouse.
What appears troubling on the surface is that the payment for the equipment was to the department’s chief and the payment for the contracting work was to his son-in-law.
It is understandable - and it is a fair question to ask - that there are folks who might be worried that the department might be using taxpayer money to benefit its own members.
But a little perspective, and facts, are needed to understand just how a volunteer fire department operates.
Volunteer fire departments are private, nonprofit operations. Its services for a particular community are contracted for by the counties where they provide fire protection.
As a result of being a contracted service, similar to what is provided by a county ambulance, they don’t have to meet the same standard of scrutiny and public inspection required by municipal and county governments.
So, for example, if they have a building that needs maintenance or repair, or equipment to purchase, they aren’t required to follow the same guidelines for the bidding process, like what is required by municipal, county, state or federal governments.
Simply put, they can choose whomever they wish to provide whatever service or equipment they need. The department’s board, chosen by members of the community, make the final decision on all purchases.
Ultimately, it is the community members who have the final say on where its department’s money is spent. Once a year, the department holds its annual meeting. It is at that meeting where members of the community can decide if a change is leadership is needed based on the board’s actions during the prior year.
That annual meeting of the Todd VFD was held last week. According to the several who attended the meeting, there was not a change in the department’s board.
Unfortunately, that is only second-hand information. Reporters for the Jefferson Post and the Ashe Mountain Times arrived at the firehouse on Monday night to cover the meeting. Those reporters were barred from the meeting.
When the Post consulted with attorneys with the N.C. Press Association about whether the reporters should have been barred, our counsel said probably not.
However, an attorney representing the Todd VFD, citing an opinion from an expert on government with the N.C. School of Government at UNC-Chapel Hill, said the department’s board had the authority to bar the reporters.
We will concede the board had the authority to bar the media from attending the meeting based on its operation as a private, nonprofit contractor for Watauga and Ashe counties.
However, it knew questions had been raised about the administration of the department’s finances and denying entry to members of the media gave the outward impression it had something to hide.
We commend Todd VFD Chief Chris Welch on his openness to our questions about the department’s finances and his support of our attendance at the meeting.
It’s now up to the Watauga Sheriff to settle the matter once and for all.