Truckee Fire accepts grand jury criticism, aims to move ahead | SierraSun.com

Truckee Fire accepts grand jury criticism, aims to move ahead

Jason Shueh
Sierra Sun
Jason Shueh/Sierra Sun Truckee Fire Protection District Chair Ron Perea at Tuesdayand#8217;s board meeting.
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TRUCKEE, Calif. and#8212; The town fire board could not have been more calm on Tuesday night.

The cool demeanor persisted throughout the Truckee Fire Protection District meeting despite public discussion of harsh criticisms by a recent Nevada County Grand Jury report that described the 2010 board as ill-educated and found the past fire chief to have engaged in contractual violations and financial misconduct.

Directors discussed and accepted the report and#8212; which has been disputed by former Fire Chief Bryce Keller and 2010 board member Joe Straub and#8212; in an effort, they said, to foster transparency.

The board also plans to gather public feedback to incorporate into the draft of a written response to the grand jury, which is due by Sept. 19.

Chair Ron Perea and Vice Chair Bob Snyder, who were on the 2010 board, said the findings are not about the past, but should be used as tools for improvement.

and#8220;Iand#8217;m sorry it had to happen that way, I really am, but we have a new board now and weand#8217;ve got some recommendations,and#8221; Snyder said. and#8220;I think we should move forward.and#8221;

As part of its annual report released June 21, the grand jury found the 2010 Truckee Fire board was ill-educated and lacked fiscal responsibility and that Keller and#8212; who became chief in 2006 and#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.

Keller and#8212; who was put on non-disciplinary paid administrative leave in June 2010 and later retired in December and#8212; was also found by the jury to have instilled fear among staff. The report stating that interviewed staff reported they had been intimidated by Keller, with one employee fearing termination for questioning the former fire chiefand#8217;s actions.

During the night, board members agreed the incidents in question and findings by the jury were largely due to a culture of administration rather than to anything intentional or nefarious by previous board members or Keller.

and#8220;I think a lot of the boardand#8217;s actions were due to just trust,and#8221; Perea said. and#8220;We trusted in the chief who we had and he really didnand#8217;t feel we needed to micromanage (district finances). It has been a big learning process for us and we did learn.and#8221;

Squaw Valley Fire Department Chief Pete Bansen said while he agreed with the jury report, it shouldnand#8217;t be used to blame former or previous board members.

and#8220;I donand#8217;t think itand#8217;s a reflection on the old board,and#8221; he said. and#8220;I think itand#8217;s a reflection of the culture that was in place at the time, and itand#8217;s certainly not a reflection on the staff.and#8221;

Defending Keller, Snyder said operations in the district were conducted informally during his tenure, and Keller had served the district with dedication.

and#8220;If things didnand#8217;t go the way they did, I think that he would still have been one of the better chiefs weand#8217;ve had,and#8221; Snyder said.

Truckee resident and local attorney Jim Porter and#8212; an involved advocate of the investigation and critic of both Keller and the board in 2010 and#8212; congratulated the board in its drive to push onward.

and#8220;I think the grand jury got it right. I think thatand#8217;s the bad news. The good news is that we have a new board with a new direction and weand#8217;re going to take this as an opportunity to look back and see how weand#8217;re going to make changes,and#8221; Porter said.

The boardand#8217;s administrative problems were real, significant and should have been realized by the board before staff were compelled to make them known, said Porter, who added that progressive moves have since been made to remedy the situation.

New board members agreed.

and#8220;There are some people in the community who have mistakenly gotten the impression lately that there is an ongoing problem at the fire department and there is not. Truckee fire runs pretty much like a well-oiled machine,and#8221; said board member Paul Wilford.

Wilford used the term and#8220;mission driftand#8221; to describe the culture that led to conflicts in staff communication and financial disputes.

and#8220;Somehow there was a curve in the road and there were divergent interests involved,and#8221; he said.

Director Victor Hernandez said the implementation of the grand juryand#8217;s recommendations and#8212; including board training, an improved financial policy to ensure higher accountability, improved staff communication policy and procedures and a better communication policy toward district constituents and#8212; is already under way, with exception of an updated financial policy that will require time to install.

and#8220;I really think that whole document needs to be looked at, I want to make sure board members know exactly what their role is,and#8221; he said.