On Wednesday, Dec. 16, the Idyllwild Fire Protection District Commission and its Finance Committee met in a rare joint session.

The purpose was to discuss the role, responsibilities, goals and objectives of the committee, originally established as the Budget Committee in November 2013. A new resolution was passed in May 2015 and superseded the 2013 resolution. One of the changes was to change the name to the Finance Committee.

“Right away, we knew it was too limiting for what the committee should be about,” said Commissioner Nancy Layton who also chairs the committee. “Since then, the committee role has evolved over the past 24 months. We need clarification on both sides of the table.”

Questions, some of which were answered and some left for the future, included the level of detail the commission expects for the committee to invest in budget review, whether accrual budgeting has improved the management process and the role of the contract accountant.

Beginning the discussion, Idyllwild Fire Chief Patrick Reitz said, “The committee is looking for clear direction from the board for specific task and projects,” for example, its role in reviewing contracts and contract proposals affecting financial services, such as the audit, he stated.

As currently constituted, the committee has five members — two commissioners, the chief and two representatives of the district’s electorate.

“There is some confusion on what the board wants the committee to do,” said Sue Weisbart, one of the committee’s public members. She expressed frustration over the “inordinate amount of time” the committee spends reviewing financial statements because of questions regarding the accuracy of these statements.

Reitz quickly responded to this portion of the discussion: “I want to clarify the concerns are the accuracy of the bookkeeping, not our solvency. There’s no funny business.”

Weisbart concurred that she has no perception of “funny” business, but she emphasized, “If you can’t have reports you trust, you don’t know.” Layton also concurred with her committee colleague.

A solution IFPD officials are discussing is to reduce the financial consultant’s role and assign more of the “bookkeeping” functions to the chief’s administrative assistant.

Reitz said he has already asked the financial consultant, Rob Dennis, to draft a document proposing a segregation of duties between the consultant’s work and district staff. The contract with Dennis was approved in July 2013 and expires in June 2016.

“My recommendation for the next board meeting [January] is to reformulate the contract, segregating the duties between him and us — who does what,” Reitz said.

He also expressed his desire to review the contract with the auditors. While a year remains on that contract, he said it may be necessary to terminate it early and go out to bid for a new contract. However, Reitz was optimistic that a recent conversation with one of the firm’s partners will improve the relationship between the two organizations.

While he has asked the committee to review both contracts, Reitz felt that with some revisions, they could be extended for two more years without seeking new bids.

Layton also recommended that she draft an operating policy for the committee, which would be added to board policies. She plans to revise the May 2015 resolution for the committee and also prepare a separate operating policy, possibly as early as the January meeting.

“The [committee] provides a very strong bond between the community and the fire district,” Layton said. “As we move forward, we really want to be that promoter of trust that was sadly lacking.” She expressed her intent to try to increase the public involvement and engagement with the committee’s work.