The Dundas City Council voiced its displeasure to a change to the Northfield Area Fire Rescue Services joint powers agreement document that would give the fire chief complete control over hiring and firing personnel.
The council unanimously voted against the amendment Sept. 9 night after NAFRS approved the change at a July meeting. The change, along with other less contentious amendments, was meant to address inconsistencies in the joint powers agreement, but the city of Dundas believes the change, shifting the overseeing of fire department personnel from the governing board to the fire chief, is concerning.
Retired Dundas Administrator John McCarthy, who is helping the city transition to current Administrator Jenelle Teppen, said the move invalidates the amendments because the rural fire district, city of Northfield and city of Dundas all need to approve amendments.
Dundas City Councilor Grant Modory asked whether the situation was a wording issue, adding firefighters have assumed they are under the supervision of the fire chief.
Dundas Mayor and NAFRS member Glenn Switzer, who was the lone no vote to the amendment in July, noted NAFRS is a governing body, and added that he believes having only one person handle personnel matters would be a problem.
In a NAFRS document to Dundas officials following July approval, the organization stated the amendments “were modified for internal consistency within the joint powers agreement document and to reflect the actual, prudent personnel customs and practices in place since the inception of NAFRS.”
To Teppen, if the joint powers agreement is amended, the board’s involvement with personnel matters would be voided. She said that would create a liability concern.
Teppen said the board would assume a greater degree of liability if it gave up oversight of personnel functioning because they have statutory authority as a joint powers board to oversee NAFRS personnel.
She said board members are charged with authority under the joint powers agreement. If that authority is removed from the joint powers board, there is an offsetting liability issue. Speaking hypothetically, she said any possible future discriminatory employment action by a fire chief without board consent could mean the board would be sued.
She said any decision to come back with the amendment would be made by NAFRS staff and the board.
Teppen noted the city of Northfield's charter gives the city administrator authority over different levels of city staff and Dundas is a statutory city, meaning state statute outlines the council's responsibility in respect to personnel matters. She added that becuase NAFRS is a joint powers agreement, she believes the original intent of the founding members was for the board to have the authority to hire, terminate and discipline employees, which would be taken away under the amendments.
"The joint powers board is giving up one of the most important parts and pieces of what they are charged to do under the joint powers agreement, and I don't think that was the intention of the group that put the joint powers agreement together originally," she said.
Northfield Area Fire Services Fire Chief Gerry Franek disagreed during a Sept. 10 phone call. He said NAFRS has a good operating system, is deliberate in its actions and is cautious not to step out of bounds.
“I have to go through all the checks and balances,” he said. “I have to be responsible to the organization and the board. I answer to the board.”
Franek said when NAFRS approved the amendments, a majority of board members signaled they wanted the fire chief to handle personnel matters. To him, although NAFRS board members are experts in many fields and are quality volunteers, they are not as aware of the ins-and-outs of firefighting.
“The board does not want that, the majority,” he said of board opinion of handling personnel matters. “They do not want to be involved in the daily goings on of personnel issues. They are the ones basically overseeing the whole organization as a group.”
He noted the Northfield City Council does not handle department personnel issues and instead leaves that up to department heads and human resources.
“That’s the way the NAFRS board wants to go,” Franek said.
“I do support the way our board voted.”
McCarthy said in past negotiations, he and Switzer tried to maintain the board’s policymaking power. He recommended the council vote against the changes in the joint powers agreement, noting the Fire Department has no recourse to tax or charge fees.
“It is essentially the city’s responsibility for any action that the Fire Department takes that creates a liability,” McCarthy said. To him, the amendment would violate laws relating to statutory cities.