Grand Jury slams Truckee Fire: Bryce Keller, Joe Straub dispute report
June 29, 2011
TRUCKEE, Calif. andamp;#8212; Former Truckee Fire Chief Bryce Keller this week denounced a Nevada County Grand Jury report that alleges mismanagement within the district, saying findings that he violated his contract and cultivated an atmosphere of intimidation and fear among staff are untrue and based on hearsay and rumors.andamp;#8220;Throughout my 36-year career, all of my decisions and actions were in the best interest of those served,andamp;#8221; said Keller in a Monday interview. andamp;#8220;I’m sincere about that, and I’ve worked tirelessly to ensure that. I wish I could say the same for others but I can’t.andamp;#8221;The grand jury, as part of its annual report released June 21, found the 2010 Truckee Fire board was ill-educated and lacked fiscal responsibility and that Keller andamp;#8212; who became chief in 2006 andamp;#8212; had violated his contract by entering into a rental agreement for a condominium to house ambulance crews at Squaw Valley; entering into a contract for public relations services with Truckee-based Switchback PR + Marketing, Inc.; and contracting outside legal counsel.The jury also found that Keller andamp;#8212; who was put on non-disciplinary paid administrative leave in June 2010; he later retired in December after his contract’s expiration andamp;#8212; had instilled fear within his employees.andamp;#8220;…Members of TFPD staff stated they were fearful of and intimidated by the fire chief and would not question his actions or decisions for fear of being fired,andamp;#8221; said the grand jury.On Monday, Keller said while he still wishes the best for the fire district, it is unfortunate the grand jury didn’t weigh all the facts and investigate more thoroughly.andamp;#8220;I have never had a grievance or a complaint filed against me in my 36 years,andamp;#8221; said Keller, referring to his employment history records.As proof of positive staff management, Keller provided a record of his accomplishments from his personnel file at Truckee Fire. The document stated that one of Keller’s primary responsibilities as chief was negotiating with the Truckee Fire Employee Association.Among accomplishments, the document commended Keller andamp;#8212; who took over in 2008 as fire chief andamp;#8212; for successful labor negotiations, leading to a three-year employee compensation agreement.Despite Keller’s disagreement with the grand jury report, Truckee resident and local attorney Jim Porter andamp;#8212; an involved supporter of the investigation and outspoken critic in 2010 of both Keller and the board andamp;#8212; heralded the grand jury report as a confirmation of concerns too sensitive to be expressed publicly by district staff.andamp;#8220;The most rewarding part for me is the firemen who have come up, lots I don’t even know, thanking me,andamp;#8221; said Porter, an unpaid law columnist for the Sierra Sun. andamp;#8220;… When I was pursuing this, I was alone and had doubts that I was doing the right thing andamp;#8212; not doubts about Keller andamp;#8212; but doubts if I was inappropriately messing in their affairs, all validated now.andamp;#8221;
Keller further disagreed with the grand jury’s interpretation of his contract, specifically regarding the ambulance issue in Squaw Valley and Truckee Fire’s quest for an Exclusive Operating Agreement to provide emergency care to that community.According to an e-mail from Brent Collinson, Truckee Fire’s legal counsel, quoting a section of Keller’s former contract with Truckee Fire, Keller was not permitted to andamp;#8220;execute any lease of real or personal propertyandamp;#8221; without the board’s approval.Keller, however, said the financial agreement to lease the condo fell within his contracted duties under district operations.Furthermore, according to a May 5, 2010, Sierra Sun story in recap of a May 4 board meeting, the Chair Ben Malone said it was an andamp;#8220;operational changeandamp;#8221; the chief had control over, and the board didn’t have to vote on.This week, Keller said his contracts for services for outside legal counsel and the hiring of Switchback during the ambulance dispute were, likewise, part of his duties.On Friday, Switchback President Brinn Talbot said her company typically assumes the individual entering an agreement has done his or her due diligence to gain needed approvals.andamp;#8220;I would assume a high-level individual hiring a public relations firm is taking the initiatives on their end for appropriate approval,andamp;#8221; Talbot said. andamp;#8220;We are hired by them, but not requested to manage who they report to for approval.andamp;#8221;
The grand jury also targeted the 2010 board of directors.andamp;#8220;The lack of education and training of the board members in their roles and responsibilities contributed to insufficient oversight and lack of control of the actions and activities of the district,andamp;#8221; the grand jury wrote.As evidence of this, the grand jury said a member of the board (not named) believed the fire chief’s employment contract did not allow the board to question the chief’s operational decisions.Recommendations from the grand jury andamp;#8212; which the district must address by Sept. 19 andamp;#8212; include board training, an improved financial policy to ensure higher accountability, an improved staff communication policy and procedures and a better communication policy toward the district’s constituents by staff and board members.Former board member Joe Straub andamp;#8212; the lone director who voted against putting Keller on administrative leave last June andamp;#8212; said he believed the jury’s findings hint of political andamp;#8212; and especially financial andamp;#8212; motivations by powerful players within town without elaborating further.andamp;#8220;This is the reason for a head hunt of the chief, this is the reason for Truckee Fire not being able to get its … E.O.A. (ambulance agreement), this is the reason for trying to discredit past fire board members, and this is the reason for a grand jury investigation,andamp;#8221; said Straub in a statement to the Sun. andamp;#8220;It is my opinion that this whole thing is about money. People wanting it or people getting out of paying their fair share of it.andamp;#8221;Straub said he was not called by the grand jury for an interview, which makes him question the intent and the accurate development of the jury’s investigation. He added that Keller’s performance as fire chief was above average.Despite allegations of open meeting law violations, the grand jury in its report said there was no evidence to substantiate such claims.
Discussing the grand jury findings lightly at a Tuesday, June 21, board meeting, Truckee Fire directors and Interim Fire Chief Bob Bena agreed a public discussion of the findings is needed before a response is given to the county in September. One is scheduled for the board’s July 19 meeting.andamp;#8220;It’s important to me that after what the fire district has been through that this be something that we, in some depth, discuss the findings of in public and give direction,andamp;#8221; said Director Gerald Herrick.Herrick is one of three newly elected directors to the board, including Victor Hernandez and Paul Wilford (Wilford was absent), who in their campaigns last fall all promised to add transparency to the board to repair its image and restore public trust.andamp;#8220;I think we need to go through the full process, have public input so the public can make their statements, and with the tone of the board and public input, assemble a draft (response),andamp;#8221; Hernandez said.Chairman Ron Perea and Vice Chairman Bob Snyder andamp;#8212; both elected in 2006 and who were on the board in 2010 andamp;#8212; did not speak specifically about the grand jury’s findings, yet agreed to the public discussion of the findings.Collinson said within its response the district will have to state whether or not it agrees with the findings and recommendations, or if it partially agrees or disagrees.If the district did not fully agree, Collinson said it will have to state its reasons. Collinson added that the district will also have to state how it would comply with the grand jury’s recommendations.Bena said he feels the grand jury findings, though negative at first glance, could be used for positive change and a way for the district to reach out to residents.andamp;#8220;I think were really headed in the right direction,andamp;#8221; Bena said.