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ECHFD struggles over records

A power struggle over the records of the East Hubbard County Fire Department and First Responders has spilled into the legal arena.

A letter June 28 from the departments' attorney essentially states Fire Chief Lee Johnson and daughter Sabrina Hegg, who heads the First Responders division, must turn over the records to a board inquiry unless they can cite a legal reason not to.

There is speculation Johnson is going to retain legal counsel to stall the request, but Johnson declined to discuss the legal specifics of the showdown Monday.

"I would hope not," Johnson said of the matter being settled by attorneys.

He said he's offered the records for inspection, but the board wants physical possession of them.

Tim Scouton, a board member of the EHCFD, requested the records at a recent city council meeting.

The dispute arose this past spring when Scouton, on behalf of the entities that subsidize the departments, questioned whether they were being billed the correct amounts for services.

That has mushroomed into how the gaming funds and firefighters retirement accounts are being handled and how much money is involved.

The city of Akeley, Akeley Township, Badoura and White Oak townships, all contribute to the department's annual $65,000 budget based on a formula that was derived several years ago.

Allegedly Johnson and Hegg declined to produce the records, questioning whether the board had authority to delve into their finances.

Hackensack attorney James McGill advised the two that under a Joint Powers agreement, they must surrender the records for an audit.

Monday Johnson complained the board is trying to "micromanage" the departments. The fire board meets July 18.

"I suppose you might want to call it micromanaging," Johnson said in a telephone interview Monday. "I don't know what their problem is and there's some data privacy issues with some of this stuff and I told them they could take a look at it, they just couldn't take it."

Neither side asserts money is missing or has been mishandled.

The departments question whether the board is on a fishing expedition.

"I honestly don't know what the hell they want," Johnson acknowledged. "That's why we're having a meeting."

Scouton, a former city employee, said the board "is supposed to own and run the fire department.

"In past practices, it hasn't really worked like that. It's been more of a dictatorship."

A year ago the board began the process of re-writing the joint powers agreement to update a 1988 document.

"There was some verbiage and some junk in there that wasn't even pertinent," Scouton said. "We just wanted to clean it up."

Numerous revisions have been scripted and sent to McGill for legal approval.

"Some aspects of it upset the Fire Department and First Response," Scouton said. "We basically wanted to see more of the financial part of it. We wanted it laid out on the table a little more clear because some of it seemed hidden, not shared. And we're not comfortable with that. And they're throwing a big fit about it, actually."

Johnson disagrees and said he's offered the records for inspection. Because of the data privacy issues, he said he doesn't want to see them copied and put into larger circulation, where they might not be safeguarded.

Scouton maintains the records are subject to the open records law because the departments are taxpayer-subsidized.

Scouton said the board received a "verbal lashing" from Johnson and Hegg in response to turning over the records.

"We sat there baffled," Scouton recalls. At that point, the board turned to McGill, Scouton said. The June 28 letters went out.

"We have the finances of the Fire Department itself," Scouton said. "It's the relief fund we're not privy to."

Fire relief funds are monitored by the state auditor's pension division. Requests for that information were not answered by press time. Firefighters receive retirement benefits based on a formula centered on years of service and whether the firefighter is vested.

Scouton said the board wants to know where the money is invested.

"That's one of the pieces of the puzzle that we want to have and we don't," Scouton said.

"They're afraid we're not going to let them spend the money as they see fit, or something to that effect," Scouton said.

"But we're the governing body," he added.

The new joint powers agreement has not been ratified by the three townships and Akeley.

Johnson dismisses the dispute as a tempest in a teapot and said the department isn't going to be sidelined by politics.

"As far as I know everything's good. It's summertime and like everybody else we're busy," Johnson said.

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

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