'With all due respect,' public protests fire board's appointment of new member

Fire industry experience versus the lack thereof was fuel for a heated debate at the Golden Valley Fire District Executive Board of Directors meeting on Jan. 9.

The issue was the appointing of a board member to fill the vacancy left when Nicole Jenks resigned last month; she had attended just one board meeting after taking her oath of office when she replaced Brad Armey.

Four fire district residents applied to fill her vacated position. Two of the four had applied unsuccessfully three months ago, when the board first appointed Jenks. Board members said they based their decision at that time on her financial acumen and her experience and actions on one of the fire district's committees.

Still, her appointment was something of a surprise to onlookers.

Some had assumed the position would go to William McCarter, an 8-year valley resident who also happens to be a retired fire chief from Texas.

Others thought Jeri Feneis would be the board's choice. She has lived here since 1992, and has been and remains quite active in the community. She runs the U.S. Post Office that shares space with her Y-Knott Gifts Galore and More gift shop. Those enterprises are in the same building as Feneis's Arizona Real Estate office. And Feneis is an experienced tax preparer and bookkeeper.

Despite their earlier lack of success, both Feneis and McCarter applied again for the board seat. Also entering the latest race were Gary Pulliam, a semi-retired school bus driver who had 35 years of experience working in the EMS and firefighting field, as well as emergency dispatch in Riverside, Calif.; and Dennis Reiter, an 11-year Golden Valley resident who retired from the Safeway distribution center in Tempe. He told the fire board he had no experience in the field, but was a "good learner."

Each applicant had the chance to state their qualifications and reasons for wanting to be on the board. Then, the board entered executive session to discuss the applications and the applicants.

When they reconvened, they asked McCarter if he anything further to say.

McCarter told them that he felt his years of experience leading the fire department in Texas could be put to good use here and that he was eager to work with the board and "give back to my community."

That said, the board immediately and unanimously voted to appoint Reiter to replace Jenks.

The room resounded with a muted but sustained buzz of protests and questions from the 30-some audience members, many of whom had come specifically to witness the process and to support the various applicants.

Chairman Steve Galner brought the meeting back to order. Valley resident Sharon Davies stood and asked to address the board. Galner said she would have to wait until the end of the meeting, when the agenda allowed for public comment.

Board Attorney James Schoppmann corrected Galner. The board last year had set a precedent when it agreed to allow public questions and comments pertinent to each specific agenda item, he said.

Davies then opened the floodgates when she asked, "with all due respect to Mr. Reiter," why the board had overlooked two men with obvious valuable experience and appointed someone with no knowledge at all of firefighting or emergency services.

Then, each with their own unique spin on the same theme, came a barrage of similar questions from Jetti Blanton, Chance Blanton and Barbara Samaniego, all residents of the fire district.

At one point, Galner started to interrupt Samaniego, who reminded him firmly that she had the floor.

"Do not get caustic with me," she said. "Stop interrupting me. Let me speak."

Galner, after the meeting, said Samaniego hadn't seen him even start to be caustic.

"I thought I was being very well behaved," he said.

As questions continued to pound the board, member Marc Frederick spoke up. He said the board chose not to appoint either of the two men, despite their considerable experience in the firefighting field, for a very specific reason.

"We already have a fire chief and an assistant fire chief," he said. "They answer to us. We don't need a board member who might be trying to tell them how to do their jobs. We're not looking for somebody to supervise the chief."

Galner was even more direct. He said the board's primary responsibilities are to make major decisions that impact the district's immediate and future wellbeing, and to make the district's financial decisions.

"We don't need an ex-fire chief on the board who might infringe on the running of the department," he said.

Jetti Blanton then asked why the board had not let the public and the two experienced applicants in particular know their bias when advertising for applications. She said failing to specify that the board was looking for applicants with financial expertise as opposed to prior fire department experience gave some of the applicants "false hope."

"Isn't this fire district in good shape financially?" Galner asked. "Then that means this board is doing a good job."

"We have one of the best damned fire departments around," member Vic Colvin said. "Apparently, we're doing a good job."

Both Galner and Frederick threw down the gauntlet when they issued identical challenges: Anyone who doesn't think the board is doing a good job is welcome to do what the elected board members have done - run for a seat on the board at the November elections.

The three seats filled now by Reiter, Galner and Colvin will be up for election at that time. All are for 4-year terms. Frederick's and Lucky Anderson's terms expire in November 2010.

McCarter said he plans to let the district's voters determine in 10 months if he will finally win a seat the board, and Feneis said she will consider following suit.

"There will be a new board after the November elections," Samaniego predicted.

After the meeting, Chief Rudy Barboa and Schoppman both said they were happy to see the renewed public interest in the department and that district residents were able to speak their minds with intelligence and with self-control, despite their obvious frustration.