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Originally published: 2014-05-15 10:12:13
Last modified: 2014-05-15 10:12:58

Our View: Open the books

Most volunteer fire departments are strange operations: private and nonprofit, but at least partially on the public dole. The operation in Todd is no different. 

Todd, like many volunteer fire departments, receives public funding, often by contracting with the municipalities they serve for fire protection. From Watauga County, that funding in Todd is worth about $80,000 annually. From neighboring Ashe, which TVFD also touches, the county typically appropriates as much as $110,000 annually for the organization.

We have no concern with this arrangement. Fire protection in our far-flung mountain communities comes at a cost, and we are thankful for each person who willingly volunteers to serve.

But we are concerned when taxpayer money is doled out with little or no accounting. Indeed, we are of the mind that any operation which receives public funding, let alone one which receives nearly $200,000 in such funding, should be willing to open its books and meetings to those who are footing the bill -- the taxpayer.

Remarkably, this is not the opinion of many volunteer fire departments, and it is not the opinion in Todd. This was made clear on May 5 when reporters, including an Ashe Mountain Times staff writer, were barred from attending the organization's annual meeting.

This prohibition, in addition to information that the organization has stalled on audit requests from Watauga County and has failed to file proper IRS documentation for two years, raises red flags. Couple this with concerns about equipment purchases and contractor work, and there are questions to be answered.

We applaud Todd Fire Chief Chris Welch for answering some of those questions in a story in today's newspaper. 

But we also applaud the sentiment that the department's board meetings should be open to the public.

Todd VFD board members cite a legal opinion barring the media from attending its meetings because it acts as a private, nonprofit contractor. We do not agree with this reading of the law.

As with most legal opinions, there is another view, and one with which we do agree.

An attorney for the North Carolina Press Association cites several reasons why meetings of the Todd VFD, and other such entities, should be open to the public:

"First, the majority of, if not all of, their funding typically comes from a tax on the public. While this factor does not always apply in other contexts, it's appropriate to consider here.

"Second, fighting fires is a traditionally public function performed by a governmental entity. Additionally, there is case law that indicates that volunteer fire departments are entitled to the same sovereign immunity as municipal fire departments. This supports the conclusion that this is an inherently public function.

"Third, it is the public policy of the state that the hearings, deliberations and actions of bodies that administer the legislative, policy-making, quasi-judicial, administrative and advisory functions be conducted openly. G.S. 143-318.9.

"Given that a board like this one administers essentially public funds to performing a traditionally public service ... the policy of the state is to require its board to meet in an open meeting unless there is a specific exemption for certain actions that might apply."

And in Todd, the case is further solidified by the organization's own bylaws: "In this specific context, this opinion is bolstered by the fact that the board's own bylaws seem to require that the meetings are open to, at minimum, local property owners," the NCPA attorney writes.

Public money equals public accounting. It's that simple, and the right thing for Todd VFD to do is to file the required IRS Form 990, amend its bylaws and open the organization to the scrutiny of those who are paying the bills.