Susan Zanker, president of the Stanislaus Consolidated Fire District board, spoke Friday about the turmoil surrounding the fire district.
Zanker said she was not aware the district had purchased thousands of dollars in furniture from a fellow board member in 2016; that is, until a story appeared in The Modesto Bee last week.
“I did not know that Mr. (David) Woods owns a fire station furniture business,” said Zanker, who signed one of the checks for purchase of recliners. “I would expect Mr. Woods will be taking quick action to rectify the situation.”
Zanker said the district’s legal counsel will conduct a thorough review of the three purchases, which were approved by staff in February, October and November 2016. Board Member David Woods’ business was paid a total of $6,160 for nine recliners that were used to furnish living quarters in fire stations.
The Bee could not confirm Friday if Woods had repaid the money to the district. If the purchases are determined to be in violation of ethics laws for public officials, the transactions could be nullified.
Woods, a former principal of Ustach Middle School in Modesto, would not speak “on the record” when contacted Friday evening.
The district’s appointed board members have been catching flak for the dismissal of Fire Chief Rick Weigele. Local officials and residents attended two special meetings last month to support Weigele, who was hired in May and was under scrutiny for his performance.
The tumult was followed by revelations last week that Fire Station Outfitters, a business owned by Woods, had sold furniture to the district. California’s conflict-of-interest laws prohibit public officials from using their positions for personal gain.
Zanker said district policies preclude her from commenting on the fire chief’s status because it’s a human resources issue. District leaders have been criticized for the short tenures of the last three chiefs – Randall Bradley, Matt Daly and Weigele. Oakdale City Manager Bryan Whitemyer suggested at the Oct. 25 meeting that a consultant could help the board and Weigele work out their differences.
Zanker said that two chiefs (Daly and Weigele) have worked for Stanislaus Consolidated in her two years on the board. She noted that Daly resigned in March for personal reasons to move back to Illinois. Daly was the chief for eight months. Bradley worked for a year and a half and resigned in November 2015 to accept a job as Tracy’s fire chief.
“It is my goal and believe it’s the goal of all board members to have stability in the chief’s position,” Zanker said. “That is our ultimate goal.”
The board has a closed session item scheduled for its regular meeting Thursday to appoint an acting chief. A second agenda item references the permanent fire chief position.
Some residents would like to see Weigele reinstated as chief. Winnie Mullins of Valley Home said Weigele was responsive to residents. Stanislaus Consolidated includes Riverbank, Empire, Waterford and unincorporated areas near Modesto and has a contract to respond to emergencies in and around Oakdale.
Residents in Valley Home and Knights Ferry are not always happy with the half-time coverage provided by the district for their communities, Mullins said.
“We were so blindsided by this,” Mullins said. “It think there has to be changes at the board level.”
Former County Supervisor Bill O’Brien said it may be time for an elected board to govern the large district, which serves a 520-square mile area and has a unionized firefighting force. The Salida Fire Protection District is a smaller entity but has elected board members.
Another idea is a joint powers authority to operate the fire service. The JPA could possibly have a board composed of elected officials from Riverbank, Oakdale, Waterford and the county jurisdiction, O’Brien suggested.
“It is very difficult to find people to serve on these appointed boards,” he said. “You are begging people to serve on these boards and commissions.”
Zanker said the board of directors will ensure it’s compliant with the Political Reform Act and other ethics laws in California. She said that could include training in conflict-of-interest regulations for board members and employees. Woods disclosed his ownership of Fire Station Outfitters in a statement of economic interest in April.
In California, a large body of legislation has evolved over the decades, with conflict of interest rules that have been broadly interpreted by courts. According to legal experts, public officials and employees can face charges or fines even if they receive indirect benefits from government contracts.
“I am fully committed to the success of this agency and making sure we are doing an exemplary job of serving our community and the agency’s partners with integrity and excellence,” Zanker said.
Ken Carlson: 209-578-2321, @KenCarlson16