Emergency Management Commission Debates Legal Counsel

Debate about legal costs surrounding a new radio system for first responders drew questions from Mahaska County Supervisor Mark Groenendyk.

Debate about legal costs surrounding a new radio system for first responders drew questions from Mahaska County Supervisor Mark Groenendyk.

Oskaloosa, Iowa – The Emergency Management Commission has been working towards finding a solution to find and then fund a new radio system for emergency personnel in the county.

That process included hiring Elert & Associates to help them build an RFP, or request for proposal, to be sent out to vendors of radio systems.

No cost for the radio system is in place, only estimates that vary from two to nine million dollars.

Since emergency management is its own municipality, comprised of elected officials representing each municipality in the county, they hired Carl Salmons as their legal representative.

Mark Groenendyk, Mahaska County Supervisor representative to the board and serving as vice-chair, questioned the expenditure of funds for legal counsel in regards to a radio system contract Salmons reviewed.

Groenendyk said he would like to see what that legal opinion of the contract was.

Mahaska County Sheriff Russ VanRenterghem, chair of the EMA Commission said that Salmons would also be reviewing the other contracts as they came in. “Those would have to be reviewed by legal counsel prior to any decisions being made, or signing them [contracts].

VanRenterghem said he didn’t believe Salmons legal review should be released until both had been reviewed.

Once a document was released, it would become a public document and could allow a competitor an advantage over another.

Salmons also argued that releasing the document early could persuade members of the board or public that he is either for or against a particular contractor or system. “My own preference would be to leave it be until we get all the information in from the others.”

Board members agreed, and the legal opinions will be made available when the review is complete.

“My point is though; this body is what pays the bills, this body is the boss. I still think it’s good for the whole body to know what’s going on,” added Groenendyk.

“Don’t we expect him [Salmons] to review contracts though?” New Sharon Councilwoman Keri Lamberson asked of Groenendyk. “We’re going into a contract with someone, and we have him as our legal counsel. That is what we should be paying him for, to review those contracts and make sure they are sound before we act on them.”

“Shouldn’t the body as a whole ask for that request though? Groenendyk asked of Lamberson. “Shouldn’t we know what’s going on?”

“I think we do know what’s going on. I know that if we are entering into a contract, then he as our legal counsel is going to review that,” added Lamberson. “At the time he has that review complete, he will come back to us and say this is what I find. This is my opinion on it.”

“But at this time, it’s not complete,” added John Van Zante, Mayor of Fremont.

“We want to wait until it’s complete,” said Lamberson.

“But should we as a board know he’s [Salmons] doing it?” Asked Groenendyk. “We as a group should know our attorney is doing this.”

Lamberson said, “In reading through the bills, and what we’re paying, I knew he was doing that because I read it in the bills that were given to us.”

“I just thought it was appropriate to have it in the minutes of what our attorney is doing so there’s a record of what’s going on,” said Groenendyk.

Groenendyk then asked, “what do we want to do as far as using our legal counsel.”

VanRenterghem said that Jamey Robinson, Director of Mahaska County EMA, needs to know when Salmons is being contacted, “because it affects his budget. Otherwise, it would fall into a situation where we’re going to have to have a meeting every three days to inform everybody.”

Robinson said that he typically communicates with the EMA chairperson, Russ VanRenterghem, when he needs to speak with legal counsel.

Robinson said that many items such as board meetings and agenda and open records requests are sent to Salmons for review. “There’s a lot of stuff from day-to-day that I may have to contact Carl [Salmons] and make sure we are doing it right. But I also try to watch the money that we spend. I think Carl has always done a very good job of letting me know if it’s something he really needs to dig into or not, so that we do conserve the money.”

Lake Keomah councilmember Eric Dursky asked Robinson if there was a line item in his budget for legal counsel. “So as long as we’re within those bounds.”

“The big cost this year has been all the new radio stuff,” added Robinson, who said that costs had increased this year, but he’s been working the overtime hours for his staff to help offset the increase. “So far, all the extra lawyer fees that we’ve paid have been covered.”

Since emergency management is its own municipality, they don’t have access to the Mahaska County attorney like many other agencies in the county.

“I got a question. Why is Jamey the one contacting the attorney, because Jamey’s suppose to be working for us,” asked Groenendyk. “We’re supposed to be setting the direction, and we should be the ones having the questions. We should be the ones wanting to know the answers.”

“If you had a dozen people calling him [Salmons] about everything, your ten-thousand dollar attorney fees would be thirty-thousand,” said Van Zante.

“No, what I’m saying is this body’s the one that is suppose to be giving Jamey direction where to go,” added Groenendyk. “We’re the head, Jamey’s the employee. The body here, the head is supposed to give direction for Jamey to work and go. So my question is, if Jamey’s the one that has all the questions, why don’t we? Why aren’t we the ones who have the questions and want the answers?”

“Well we don’t deal with the EMA issues on a day-to-day basis like Jamey does,” said VanRenterghem. “You’re right, Jamey works for us. He’s in that position, appointed obviously before my time.”

“He was selected because he knows when he should and shouldn’t contact Carl,” added VanRenterghem. “We can’t as a commission; we can’t take part in the day-to-day operations of EMA. We would have to have several meetings a week if we were to do that.”

“I think we have to put some trust in Jamey; he was hired to do the job. Jamey knows; if he messes up, and doesn’t do the job the commission wants, then that will be addressed,” said VanRenterghem.

“We can’t micromanage Jamey,” said VanRenterghem. “We have safeguards built in there. Jamey is very good in contacting me [board chair].”

“I think we have to let him do his job. His job is to run it on a day-to-day basis and answer to us,” added VanRenterghem. “I trust Jamey to do his job.”

No policy was adopted by the commission in regards to using legal counsel.

The commission did set a policy to keep audio recordings of the proceedings for ten years based upon the recommendation by attorney Salmons.

Robinson spoke to commission members about the Mahaska Alert system and opened up the possibility of each city using the system for their community.

The commission then heard from Robinson about multiband radios. Each vendor will be providing a test radio for use in a patrol unit for 90 days of testing by the Mahaska County Sheriff’s Office. The Oskaloosa Police Department is testing two handheld units currently.

Robinson updated the commission about potential plans for building a new communications tower at the EMA building located at 610 G Avenue West, (former Oskaloosa Schools bus barn).

The new tower, if approved, could be up to 350 foot tall and will be designed to allow the new radio system to be installed.

The county currently has a 180-foot tower located near William Penn University. The added height could help improve radio communication until the new system is in place.

No action was taken.

Robinson updated the commission on the progress of the RFP or request for proposal on the new radio system. The commission’s contract with Elert & Associates continues, and Robinson said that two more visits from the consultants are planned to help keep the commission updated.

Groenendyk then spoke to the board expressing his concerns about how the new radio system will be funded, and if the commission can use a taxing levy to pay for the project.

Salmons disagreed, saying that state law gives the commission the power to levy taxes on the countywide special levy.

The Mahaska County Board of Supervisors is now looking for legal opinions to stop the levy taxation method and force a per capita formula.

The delay waiting for legal opinions could set back the radio project by up to six months or more.

The commission heard about training that Robinson undertook to be a certified drone pilot. The drone is used in hazmat situations.

Robinson also said that the Mahaska County EMA is rated 8th out of all counties in Iowa in regards to state-level training made available and taken during the past five years.

The commission heard a report on expenses for warning sirens in New Sharon, Barnes City, and Rose Hill. The total cost for those upgrades is $9,895.00.

No date has been set for the next meeting.

 

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