Fire department responds to Grand Jury report

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On Tuesday, Aug. 26, the Idyllwild Fire Protection District approved its proposed responses to the latest grand jury report, with the official letter signed and mailed Tuesday, Sept. 2, according to Fire Chief Patrick Reitz.

Commissioner Rhonda Andrewson voted against the 12-page response and did not sign it. She may send an independent response.

The district sent two responses to the grand jury. The first was a four-page letter, which both the commission and citizen members of the agency’s Finance Committee jointly signed, regarding the Brown Act violation for holding a meeting in March without posting it.

The second was the 12-page letter from the commission responding to the rest of the grand jury’s findings and recommendations.
Commission response

The commission expressed disappointment in how the grand jury conducted its investigation. For example, the district did not provide the IFPD incident logs the grand jury referenced; therefore, IFPD cannot vouch for their accuracy. In addition, the grand jury chose not to interview four of the five commissioners. While Reitz and Capt. Mark LaMont did testify, they were not questioned about all the accusations and allegations discussed or described in the report.

“The district is concerned that the grand jury failed to thoroughly do its work,” said Commission President Jerry Buchanan. “There was a lack of attention to details.”

The district disagreed or partially disagreed with almost all the Findings and Recommendations. For example, the grand jury alleged that LaMont faked a photo of a sleeping reserve and then, in a conference call, called his other employer — the Pechanga Fire Department — about him sleeping on the job. The District says that no conference call “ever took place” and the Pechanga fire chief disputes the statements in the report, according to IFPD’s response.

In addition, in response to this finding and several others, the district replied, “The district did not receive a complaint prior to the grand jury report about this incident; and did not receive a complaint or comment from the complainant about this incident until the complainant addressed the board during the regular board meeting of Tuesday, August 12, 2014; additionally, the district has not ever received a complaint about this incident from any other party.”

The district did investigate the complaint from Thomas Gibby, father of two reserves. The letter states “… The district secured the services of an outside, third-party private investigator which was recommended by the district’s insurer to investigate the complaints. Based on the information and statements collected by the investigator, ‘the district determined that it was unable to corroborate the complaints with any certainty or validity;’ and the investigation into the matter has been closed.”

Regarding the assertion that Reitz failed to obtain his California paramedic certification within six months of employment as in his contract, the district disagreed in entirety with this issue. It stated that any allegation “is hearsay and should not be given any weight due to the lack of supporting documentation and the fact that no testimony was received by anyone involved in the hiring and subsequent evaluations of the fire chief. The ‘requirement’ for the fire chief to obtain his EMT-paramedic certification was never a requirement but a verbalized goal.”

Buchanan acknowledged that the requirement to obtain a state paramedic certification was a minimum qualification in the job description, which the commission posted and circulated when it recruited a replacement for former Chief Norm Walker.

“Must possess an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) — 1 or higher medical certification within six (6) months of employment,” was the language in the job description. However, when the commission negotiated its contract with Reitz, it chose not to include this requirement because of more pressing issues the commission wished Reitz to address.

“The board at that time felt the chief would have time to work on it if he chooses,” Buchanan stated.

The response states “… the fire chief is in compliance with his employment agreement. Additionally, the district states that it is the district’s Board of Commissioners, not the grand jury, that supervise the fire chief and establishes the criteria under which the fire chief is employed.”

The letter concluded with the declaration that there was no reason needed to conduct an independent investigation into LaMont’s behavior. Further, the commission considers this recommendation inappropriate for several reasons, including the inadequate and biased investigation the grand jury conducted.

Joint response with Finance Committee
The commission and committee admitted they took a trip to the Perris Dispatch Center to collect information about the district dispatch contract with Cal Fire and Riverside County Fire Department.

Nevertheless, in the letter, “The district states without admitting any violation of the Ralph M. Brown Act that: only the board president and fire chief were designated to engage in discussions with the RVC Fire/Cal Fire staff. There were no collective discussions, conclusions, decisions, assurances or promises made [while] traveling to, during, traveling from, or after this trip, relating to this trip.”

In response to a question, Buchanan agreed that state law — the Brown Act — defines a meeting of a legislative body, which both the commission and committee constitute, as a quorum of members. He also confirmed that the session with Cal Fire was not a properly posted meeting, and would not be repeated.

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