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“TRANSPARENCY IN LOCAL GOVERNMENT”
SE Thurston Fire Authority Update

“TRANSPARENCY IN LOCAL GOVERNMENT”

While factually correct, omissions from the Nisqually Valley News (NVN) stories on the Southeast Thurston Fire Authority’s budget challenges give the public a skewed perception.

Background:
– There was a story in this week’s newspaper that the WA. State Auditor was auditing the Fire Authority.
I understood this audit was a bi-annual, routine and previously scheduled audit.
Yet, the newspaper did not say that was the case and the way their article was placed next to another Fire Authority story, implied that an audit was being performed because of some malfeasance, their Editor/Publisher going so far the previous week as to compare the Fire Authority issues with that of the Yelm Cemetery’s lack of board oversight and appearance of conflict of interest by the manager.

Last weekend, I posed some questions to Chief Hutchseon to get clarification in light of the newspaper’s coverage.

Blogger:
Wasn’t the former the case [a routine, required audit], identical to the 2011 City of Yelm routine state audit reported in the newspaper a few weeks ago?
Isn’t this year’s Fire Authority audit of the Rainier (last audits 2009 & 2010) and Yelm (last audit 2010) Fire Districts, with one scheduled within the next year or so for the entire Fire Authority a regular, routine required state audit?

Chief Hutchseon:

“You are correct. This audit was scheduled earlier in the year and had no connection to the current situation.”

Blogger:
The NVN’s Megan Hansen reported on Oct. 30th:
“When that position [Asst. Chief] was created, [Chief Mark] King said, the fire district had a $300,000 cash forward from the year before.

The funds eroded fast, Hutcheson said, explaining, ‘It had a lot to do with controlling costs and overtime.’

‘It had to do with big incidents and a safety issue.’

The newspaper’s online Question of the Week asked if the public thought the hiring of an Assistant Chief was necessary. The newspaper has questioned in several stories the need for an Assistant Chief position. Can you address this issue?

Chief Hutchseon:
“I have attached a copy of the presentation Mark [Chief King] & I provided the Board in July of 2010 identifying the need for the 3rd assistant chief.”
Read more.

Blogger:
Chief Hutcheson, you reached out to a cross-section of the community throughout the strategic plan process earlier this year to get ideas about what had become a challenging situation, maintaining your efforts to run the Fire Authority like a business. I know you and the Fire Commissioners did all you could to preserve jobs and support service levels as long as possible. With the increased expenses & declining revenues coming to a head in late summer, yes, the budget issue emerged.

[Ed. Note:
Had big incidents and a safety issue not happened, then the decisions they undertook would look wise in hindsight (adding a new fire fighter in 2010, an Asst Chief and a Strategic Plan). Yet, had the budget issue appeared in early 2011 to this degree, I am sure those jobs would have been cut then, 7-8 months earlier.

Ever had to layoff someone? You work all possible solutions as long as you can before making that gut-wrenching decision.

The Chief and Commissioners were painfully aware of the plan to provide and maintain a superior level of service support, yet one that could not be maintained with a gathering “perfect storm.”]

Chief Hutcheson, can you explain the steps taken when the negative balance started to become an issue?

Chief Hutchseon:
“The issue of a negative fund balance [was] brought up after the auditor saw or was provided a copy of the Board agenda (public document) listing the current balance of all district accounts with the County. The general fund was posting a negative balance at the time (prior to 2nd half tax collections). I explained to him [auditor] I had met with the county treasurer early in the year to address this issue. I gave him a copy of the letter I had sent the treasurer identifying our plan to curb expenses. The auditors out briefing has not been completed yet and it is an open, public meeting. The final report will be in the NVN and a copy will be available to anyone that wishes to request it.”
Read more of the Yelm Fire District Financial public document.

Blogger:
The innuendos, omission of facts and the highlighting of a few disgruntled voices out of proportion for the whole team is very disconcerting. The newspaper has certainly contributed to this public perception, one that will require a lot of work to overcome. How can the public help and get involved?

Chief Hutchseon:
“Attend Commissioner meetings. Support and participate in a Citizens Advisory Committee.
Question newspaper comments before forming an opinionGet the FACTS.”

Bottom line:
The newspaper has not presented a good case showing “there was a lack of good judgment and mismanagement” as opposed to a string of unforeseen expenses from big incidents that when added to the revenue downturn, put the budget in arrears. The newspaper’s innuendo about what is a routine, regularly scheduled audit of the fire authority, without mentioning that FACT to their readers, is disingenuous, at best. All of us in the Fire Authority’s service area need to be vigilant to gather the facts and provide this fine service organization the best in our support – they are our friends and neighbors who serve us in emergencies and deserve nothing less.

Now, due to decisive action on the part of the Fire Commissioners and the leadership of Chief Mark King and retiring Chief Rita Hutcheson, we learned that the Fire Authority may end the year in the black.

Additionally, the Editorial Board of the Olympian had the grace to honor retiring Fire Chief Hutchseon in their Op-Ed last week.
Read more from the Olympian.

In closing:
NVN Editor/Publisher Keven Graves is quoted from his November 25, 2005 editorial in the local newspaper:
“We (he & then Mayor-elect Harding) agree that a transparent government is better government.”

Journalism comprises standards and principles described as their professional ‘code of ethics.’ This entails truthfulness, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality and fairness.

Journalism requires public accountability, does it not?
While I write a blog, I am no trained journalist.
Our local newspaper’s readers have been told many times by their Editor/Publisher to expect more from a newspaper that differentiates its journalistic integrity with that of the local blogger.
Well, time to raise the bar to achieve that goal.

The time has also come for the newspaper to step up and participate in delivering full facts in partnership that “a transparent government IS better government”!

Posted by Steve on November 9, 2011 at 6:02 am | Permalink

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