Council, firefighters squabble over $40

<p>Wallowa Fire Chief Tom Baird, a volunteer fireman there for 52 years, angrily walked out of the Feb. 21 city council meeting in reaction to a comment made by Councilman Red Evans.</p>

WALLOWA – Four members of the City of Wallowa’s volunteer fire department walked out in disgust at the Feb. 21 Wallowa City Council meeting.

Two walked out over the city’s reluctance to fund a $40 expense for a monthly “meal night” through money the city has budgeted for fire department expenses. Two others – the fire chief and assistant fire chief – walked out later during the meeting in response to a related comment made by Councilman Red Evans.

Still angry eight days later over an incident that was not recorded in preliminary minutes of that meeting, Fire Chief Tom Baird said, “Red Evans told us [in the public meeting] if we wanted a ‘meal night’ that we should go join the Enterprise Fire Department. That was totally uncalled for.”

Evans, who has asked workers at City Hall not to release his cell phone number, also left word at City Hall that he was declining the Chieftain’s request for an interview.

Baird became involved with the Wallowa Fire Department at an early age – although his role was limited at age 12 when he began hanging around the station when father Verdo Baird was fire chief — and says his various forms of personal connection to the department stretch over the past 52 years.

Assistant Fire Chief John Campbell, chosen by the 13-member fire department to be their spokesman regarding the controversial event, was candid and outspoken during an interview.

At the heart of the matter, according to Campbell, was beer, a topic Mayor Ron Philbrook and some firemen were reluctant to have publicly aired.

Although volunteer fire departments in Joseph and Enterprise have included regular meal nights in efforts to improve morale and encourage new recruits, the concept in Wallowa is relatively new. The department’s first meal night was held Dec. 26, and its second on Jan. 23.

Before the Feb. 21 meeting, in a private discussion between Mayor Philbrook and Fire Chief Baird, the mayor expressed no objections to the estimated $40 cost for a meal night. Referring to that out-of-meeting discussion on Feb. 29, Philbrook said, “I wouldn’t think the council would have a problem with it. After all, it’s a session to welcome new recruits.”

Both Baird and Campbell admit they made an error in judgment when beer was purchased for the Jan. 23 meal night, the departmental gathering for which the council was asked to pay at the Feb. 21 meeting.

“I immediately told them it never would happen again,” said Baird. “But they said a flat ‘no,’ that we should pay for meals ourselves.”

Campbell, who emphasized the importance of maintaining good relations with the city council, nonetheless confirmed Baird’s account of Evans’ remark. Campbell characterized the councilor’s comment as “disrespectful.”

The assistant fire chief thought it was important to note that the total number of beers purchased for meal night amounted to less than two beers per fireman.

Mayor Philbrook said the council, late in the meeting, did agree to pay the $40 on a one-time basis. He added that on the following morning he pulled $40 from his own pocket to pay for that controversial expense. He said the topic might not be placed on the March meeting agenda.

They mayor said he didn’t want this incident to reflect badly on the volunteer fire department. Philbrook is not hesitant to state his appreciation for the volunteers who not only invest time, and at times risk their well being for residents of the city.

Campbell said if the city council is unwilling to pay $40 each month for meal night from dollars the city has budgeted for fire department expenses, three businesses in town have said they would do so. Those businesses are Goebel’s Service, Kni-Co. Manufacturing Services, and The Resell Shop, a nonprofit designed to wisely invest money into the city of Wallowa.

About two months before the Wallowa volunteer fire department staged a successful steak and oyster feed Feb. 11 that generated about $2,000 in income, the city and fire department split the $300 cost for purchasing a used grill from the local American Legion post. It was on that grill that food was cooked not only for the Feb. 11 feed that attracted about 200 people, but also for the meal night which generated the controversy.

Campbell, a fireman in Wallowa for about 20 years, says the Wallowa Fire Department has a private fund that’s been in existence for approximately 50 years in which donations to the department are accrued. He says the department does not charge to burn lots, but often is the recipient of donations for this and for other free services the department extends to city residents.

Campbell says the city council had expressed an interest in absorbing money in that account during its January meeting. At that time there was about $3,000 in the account. They agreed not to do so, says Campbell, because that account has a federal tax ID number.

Campbell went on to say that it was agreed at the January city council meeting that the upfront costs of about $1,500 for oysters and rental of the Wallowa Senior Center for the steak and oyster feed would come out of that private fund and that proceeds from that money-making event, which turned out to be about $2,000, would go into the private account.

When asked why such a controversial incident was a no-show in the preliminary minutes to the meeting, Philbrook said, “ … because they were not completed.”

Such minutes do not become the legal record of a meeting until they are approved at the next council meeting.

The City of Wallowa does tape its meetings and, according to city attorney Roland Johnson, those tapes are a matter of public record. To gain access to tapes of city council meetings, one simply needs to submit a written request for a tape on a specified date and submit that request either to the city recorder or the mayor.

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