When the Stanislaus County civil grand jury turned over some stones at Burbank-Paradise Fire District, it found the district had employed a chief who was married to a board member.
Twice last year, sheriff's deputies were called to board meetings in the fire station to settle fierce arguments between members of the board.
It found disregard for conflict-of-interest rules, sloppy record-keeping and a $600,000 station remodel that was approved without the board considering more than one bid.
And then there was the sale of an old fire truck.
In a report on the investigation, released this week, the grand jury concluded the fire district is dysfunctional and should be dissolved if reforms recommended in the report are not implemented. District officials attributed the problems to prior management and said they have worked to improve matters.
(Click here for the report)
Burbank-Paradise, founded in 1942, is a small district based in west Modesto that protects a 3-square-mile area with two paid firefighters and 26 volunteers.
Last July, attention was drawn to the fire district when Chief Mike Hillar was fired after being placed on unpaid leave the previous month. In his 26 years with the district, Hillar had a history of friction with the Stanislaus Regional 911 dispatch center and the Modesto Fire Department, but the reasons for his termination were not disclosed.
The grand jury investigated a Sept. 30 complaint alleging Brown Act violations and financial irregularities by the Burbank-Paradise board.
The watchdog agency received no response to its requests for documents other than an abusive call from a board member, the report says.
During the investigation, grand jurors visited the fire station on Beverly Drive to collect documents. They attended board meetings and conducted interviews with the complainant and 10 other people.
The investigation concluded the board was dysfunctional; its elected members lacked training, leadership skills and the ability to communicate.
The report detailed a dozen other findings from a lack of conflict-of-interest policies and bylaws to not providing agendas and minutes for board meetings, failing to provide financial statements and audits and a need for employee job descriptions and grievance procedures.
The husband-and-wife team of Mike Hillar and Pam Hillar, a board member who finally resigned in February, created acrimony and discord among district leaders, the grand jury found.
Witnesses testified that Mike Hillar's spouse did not recuse herself from a closed-door discussion on the chief's termination last year. Under conflict of interest laws for public entities, a board member with a financial interest in a decision should not participate in the discussion or the vote.
Board meetings attended by grand jurors were "loud and argumentative", with directors interrupting each other and holding side conversations. During one closed-door session, board members yelled so loud that grand jurors standing outside the fire station could hear the angry exchanges.
Often, a board member took minutes by jotting notes on his copy of the agenda and claimed the papers were his personal copies. Other board members claimed they recorded the minutes for their personal use.
Disputes over the details of board decisions led to the use of a voice recorder at meetings. A clerk transcribed the recordings word for word and some of the minutes were stored on a home computer. The grand jury concluded that the district's "meeting minutes failed to meet the minimum requirement for conducting public business."
In other findings:
- The district has spent more than $30,000 for an attorney hired to defend the district against a potential wrongful termination suit, nearly twice the budgeted amount.
- The district placed financial reports in an unlocked filing cabinet, and kept district credit cards in an unlocked desk for anyone to use.
- A state policy handbook on bidding procedures instructs a fire agency to obtain at least three written bids for a construction project and award the contract to the lowest bidder that meets the agency's needs.
The grand jury never got to the bottom of the sale of a surplus fire truck for $1,900. Witnesses testified that a buyer paid cash for the vehicle. The money was put in an envelope and placed in former Chief Hillar's desk. "No record is available authorizing the sale or verifying the disposition of the funds received," the report says.
Board Chairman Curtis King said Thursday there's no evidence the $1,900 was deposited in a district account. “It would not have been reported missing if we knew where it was at,” King said. Efforts to reach Hillar were not successful.
The grand jury's portrayal of a fire district in turmoil comes more than two years after Burbank-Paradise voters approved a special tax of $75 a year for owner-occupied homes, a $27 increase for homeowners. The fire station remodel was a stated reason for the increase as well as costs of emergency services.
Peter Golling, the current fire chief, said the board has made a lot of changes to comply with public meeting laws and correct other problems in response to the investigation. He noted that district credit cards are now locked up and purchases must be approved by the fire chief.
"I would say this report comes almost a year later,” Golling said. "I would say 90 percent of the issues have been resolved since last year.”
District officials said they've been advised it’s not illegal for married couple Rudy Caro and Dianne Culwell-Caro to serve on the board. Both were first appointed and then elected in November.
County Supervisor Terry Withrow, who is running for re-election, agreed the district has been dysfunctional in the past. He disagreed with the recommendation to consider dissolving the fire district, however.
"At this point, I want to give them a chance to get back on their feet," said Withrow, who expressed confidence in the new chief. "Leadership is everything. They serve a purpose for (the residents and property owners) in the district."
Sara Lytle-Pinhey, executive officer of the Local Agency Formation Commission, which oversees local government boundaries, said Thursday she did not know if the commission would consider dissolving the district without first reading the report. “If there is a dissolution, someone else would have to take over the services,” she said. “We would look at how the services would be provided and how it would be financed.”
The grand jury established deadlines for implementing its recommendations between Aug. 1 of this year and Jan. 1, 2019, which suggests it could follow up on the report. It recommends that LAFCo consider elimination of the district and consolidation with another fire department by June 30, 2019.