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Posted: Tuesday, October 2, 2001 11:00 pm

The results of Northwest Fire and Rescue District's internal investigation of alleged open meeting law violations have eased the concerns of the Pima County Attorney's Office.

Deputy County Attorney Paula Wilk said in an interview last week there is no need for further inquiry by Pima County. Boardmember Jane Madden had called for an investigation by the county attorney's office in July concerning what she believed to be an open meeting law violation in March.

NWFD Attorney Thomas Benavidez found only minor transgressions that are not believed to have been intentional, Wilk said. The violations will be corrected through training, and by changing the board meeting minutes to reflect the members' actions, she said.

"If a public agency will voluntarily take action to avert the problem in the future, in my mind that very much addresses the situation," Wilk said. "I find it very laudable, actually."

The two alleged violations took place at the March 27 and July 24 board meetings. At the March meeting, NWFD board Chairman Patrick Quinn made a motion that the district's 2001-2002 fiscal year budget be built on a tax rate of $2.50 per $100 of a home's assessed valuation. The motion was approved by a vote of 3-1, with Madden dissenting.

Quinn has said that motion was only direction to the budget committee rather than an attempt to set the tax rate, which under state law requires a public hearing and 30 days notice.

Jim Schuh, a member of the government spending watchdog group Pima Association of Taxpayers, with his wife Mary Schuh, an Amphitheater Public School Governing Boardmember, is a regular critic of NWFD's spending habits and notified Wilk of both incidents.

The second open meeting law violation the district was accused of involved how the July 24 meeting minutes depicted the board's approval of a computer software purchase.

The motion made by board Vice Chairman Linda Christopherson does not match the action portrayed in the minutes, which grants Northwest Fire Chief Jeff Piechura "annual renewal of maintenance agreement at his discretion."

Christopherson's motion did not mention handing all future decisions concerning the software over to Piechura, Benavidez's letter to Wilk said.

"Mr. Schuh's factual assertions are correct," Benavidez wrote in his letter. "(Christopherson's motion) is not the same motion articulated in the meeting minutes."

Benavidez argued in his response that, while mistakes were made in both instances, neither of them are open meeting law violations. Since the July 24 minutes were not altered after the board approved them, the inaccuracies were merely accidental, the letter said.

The open meeting law violations could have resulted in a void of those actions and fines levied against the district board.

Lauri Yates, an NWFD administrative staff member, takes notes at the board meetings and writes the minutes. The July 24 minutes were approved by the board at its August meeting by a vote of 3-1, with Madden dissenting again.

When Yates was writing the July meeting minutes, Benavidez said she inserted the motion written in the board book in place of what was proposed and approved by the Board.

Yates had "done this innocently and without direction from anyone else," Benavidez wrote.

It is common for staff and board members in small agencies, such as fire districts, to not understand the open meeting laws, Wilk said. Part of NWFD's corrective action will be training in creating meeting minutes.

The other part will be correcting both sets of meeting minutes, which was supposed to be completed at the Sept. 25 meeting but was tabled. Boardmember Jim Doyle was not present and Benavidez said he didn't want the board to proceed without all the members present who approved the minutes.

Absences have plagued the Northwest Fire Board the past several months with meetings often only attracting the minimum three members.

At the last two meetings, members have participated by phone. Christopherson, while out of town on business, did so at the August 28 meeting and Boardmember Jim Kisner was in Show Low, where he owns an ambulance service and lives three weeks of every month, when he participated by phone at the September meeting.

This method of completing their obligations to the district is not an ideal way to improve attendance, Quinn said.

Meetings by phone should only be used occasionally, when a member must attend and it is otherwise impossible, he said.

"It's hard for the public to get a read on the boardmembers when they're participating (by phone)," Quinn said. "The board meetings are my only chance to talk to these people. It's hard to sound somebody out when they're not sitting there."

Kisner, who because of his business finds it hard to make some of the meetings, said his only problem with attending by phone could be fixed by better technology.

"It's hard hearing some of the things, some of the comments from staff and the audience," he said. "Other than that it was fine."

Both sets of minutes were expected to be approved at the board's special meeting Oct. 2. The board was also expected to approve the annexation of Canyon Pass.

Information from the meeting could not be included as it was after the Northwest EXPLORER's press time.

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