ARLINGTON — A crowd packed the Arlington City Council chambers Monday night, bringing their concerns over how some council members have been exploring the idea of changing the city’s fire service.
At issue is whether a quorum of the council skirted state public meetings law and discussed via email the possibility that a contract with North County Regional Fire Authority might be less expensive than running the city’s own fire department.
In June, Councilman Chris Raezer brought up the issue of whether four fellow council members were discussing the issue out of the public eye.
Early this spring, council members Marilyn Oertle, Steve Baker and Debora Nelson met as a group to speak with North County Fire officials about providing service to Arlington. They discussed what they found out in an email and included Councilman Ken Klein in the email string. In the case of Arlington’s council, a quorum is four council members.
Concerned about possible violations of the state Open Public Meetings Act, Raezer sought an opinion from the state Attorney General’s office, which encouraged all council members to move the debate into a public meeting and to cease meeting in small groups or through email.
Steve Peiffle, who serves as the city’s attorney, said he is confident that the members of the council who participated in information gathering outside of City Hall were not in violation of the public meetings law.
Oertle explained that she, Nelson and Baker are concerned about the city budget and are trying to find ways to save the taxpayers money.
“Steve Baker and I were approached by North County Fire and asked if we were interested in hearing what they had to offer,” Oertle said. “At no time were we trying to be secretive. We sent the information we gathered to Ken and to the rest of the council.”
Raezer said he has no problem with examining ways in which the city can provide proper services at less cost.
“But not the way it was done,” Raezer said. “At least two of us knew nothing about the meetings that were taking place and the documents being emailed.”
In December, Baker and Oertle voted against the passage of the 2012 city budget because it included the plan that the city would place on the ballot this year a sales tax increase to help fund the police and fire departments. Then, earlier this year, the council chose not to put the matter before the voters.
“We do not want to raise taxes unless we have to,” Oertle said.
At Monday’s meeting, dozens of people showed up, many wearing stickers reading, “I Support Arlington Fire.” Several people spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting, saying they hope the city will retain its fire department.
“I am mostly concerned about the possibility of increased response times should the city contract with North County Fire,” said Casey Payne, who lives in Arlington.
Arlington Fire Chief Bruce Stedman maintains that Arlington offers the least expensive, best fire protection around. Oertle said she wants to see cost comparisons offered by surrounding fire service officials.
The debate about how to deliver fire protection service is sure to continue, including at the council’s upcoming workshop meeting Monday when city staff plan to review the revenue sources for fire and emergency medical services with the council.
For now, though, Raezer is relieved that the discussion is out in the open.
“I was elected to look out for the best interests of the citizens, not to be friends with other members of the council,” Raezer said.
Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427; firstname.lastname@example.org.