Fire district closing most of its meetings

The district board cites legal issues as justification.
Friday, July 27, 2007 | 2:00 a.m. CDT; updated 6:03 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Columbia- The Boone County Fire Protection District board of directors has closed its meetings twice as frequently since Jan. 1 than it did last year, as it wrestles with personnel and litigation issues neither the board nor the administration will describe.

The board held its 13th closed board meeting of the year on Wednesday. Only seven open meetings were held during the same time period.

As previously reported by the Missourian, the fire district’s board has held a significantly higher number of closed meetings over the past three years than the Columbia City Council, Boone Hospital’s board of trustees and the Columbia Housing Authority.

A notice posted on the fire district’s Web site and one posted at its headquarters, 2201 I-70 Drive N.W., states that the meeting was closed to discuss “legal matters.”

Fire Chief Steve Pausell cited exceptions to Missouri’s Open Records Law as the specific justification for holding another closed meeting.

The law requires public agencies to maintain open records and provide public access to the workings of government in the state, but provides narrow exceptions for closing meetings and sealing records when public bodies discuss legal and personnel issues. Paulsell would not specify which legal matters were discussed and referred the Missourian to the district’s lawyer, Jeff Parshall, who could not be reached for comment.

The fire district is being investigated by the FBI and faces at least two civil lawsuits — a personal injury lawsuit brought by a woman who claims that she was sexually assaulted by a firefighter in a fire district station and a wrongful termination suit brought by a former employee of the district.

Board member Shelly Dometrorch said she could not comment on the specifics of what was discussed at Wednesday’s meeting and again referred the Missourian to the fire district’s legal counsel. She said one of the fire district’s attorneys advised the board not to disclose to the Missourian which of its legal troubles were discussed on Wednesday.

“The district is in fine shape, but we do have some issues that we need to address and when it’s litigation or personnel or things like that, then it is appropriate to close those meetings,” Dometrorch said.

Glenda Castrop, former leader of the now-disbanded group Concerned Citizens for Boone County, who has a home under district protection, said the closed meetings suggest that “the district must be in pretty bad shape.” Still, she said she had “no doubt” that the district’s problems do not interfere with its abilities to fight fires and perform rescue services within the district.

Castrop is concerned, however, about the ability of the board to discharge its duties.

“The fire district is having all of these (closed) meetings and nothing is being settled,” she said.

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