Conflict with Fire Department sparks flames
Mayor Al Clark has declined to re-appoint Kirk “Bubba” Reetz as 2019 Fire Chief for Alta Fire Department until receiving requested financial disclosures, igniting disagreement among City Council members, the Fire Department and the Alta Firemen’s Association with no extinguisher in sight.
Clark caught some by surprise at Monday’s City Council meeting when the time came on the agenda to confirm Reetz’s appointment and put it to a vote.
Clark requested financial reports in December through a text message on the 8th, an in-person meeting on the 12th and a letter dated the same day, asking that Reetz deliver them during January’s City Council meeting. He cited city code outlining the mayor’s administrative duties, saying that the mayor may “examine all department functions and records and call for special reports from department heads at any time.”
On Monday, Clark cited lack of cooperation from Reetz as cause for him refusing the appointment for the time being. “Because of his disregard to follow instructions, I cannot in good conscience renew Kirk Reetz’s appointment for 2019 Fire Chief,” he said. Reetz has served as Fire Chief for two years.
“Refusing to name the department-elected Chief is unprecedented,” said Assistant Fire Chief Dave Suhr in a press release Thursday. Clark said Suhr may act as Fire Chief until the conflict is resolved to his satisfaction.
The Association states that allocation of all funds received at a standalone 501(c)(3) not for profit organization are determined by the Association’s board, which assigns the funds to specific projects.
In a cited list at the end of their press release of projects over the last several years, Reetz said only one purchase received prior approval from City Council because its cost was shared by funds outside the Association.
Reetz cited slow response from attorneys and auditors coming out of the holiday season as to why the documents were not delivered at City Council this week.
In an interview with the Pilot-Tribune after the meeting, Clark said he didn’t believe the defense, citing what he believed to be an evasive pattern of behavior from prior interactions.
“I requested this information twice, which left me with the idea they did not plan on cooperating,” he said, stating that he believed the Association had been getting incorrect legal advice. “All I believe is that they truly have been wrong in understanding how this is supposed to properly be run.”
The heart of the issue seems to be a disagreement on whether the Alta Firemen’s Association is required to disclose their records to the City of Alta, and whether expenditures must receive City Council approval.
Per advice from Alta’s city attorney, Gary Armstrong, as well the Iowa League of Cities and George Oster, an expert on fire department non-profits, Clark said he believes the Firemen’s Association must receive city approval for all expenditures unless there is another prior agreement between the association and the city.
“They kind of think they’re a separate entity from the city because of their 501(c)(3),” said Clark. “The logic behind a 501(c)(3) is it allows departments to gain grants that are only available to tax-exempt organizations. It’s a way to help save the city tax dollars.”
But even so, he said the city has to account for money in that account.
City Council authorized $600 to bring in Oster for a meeting being arranged in February to discuss proper procedures for running a non-profit associated with a fire department. “I’m highly encouraging everyone to be there,” Clark said.
Both Clark and the Firemen’s Association acknowledge that nothing seemed out of place in the last audit conducted. “But just a large dollar amount in their account makes you wonder why they have such a large amount of money,” Clark told the Pilot-Tribune Wednesday.
Reetz declined to respond to that comment.
Clark emphasized that he does not believe Reetz is involved in any misconduct, saying he simply wants transparency in funding.
“You know me, I’m the guy that pulls the Band-Aid off,” the mayor said.
Clark claimed he would consider Reetz’s re-appointment as Fire Chief after the requested information is received. “I’m an understanding kind of guy,” he said.
But the decision unleashed at Monday’s meeting sparked instant disagreement, with every City Council member except Wes Bunjes and Denny Weber expressing vocal opposition.
“Bubba deserves better than that,” said Council member Kevin Walsh. “I’m not a fan of him being treated this way. He’s given too much time to this town.”
“We’re not denying your service to our city or appreciation of that,” Clark said Monday. “But we have guidelines. … You can’t turn around and say I’m going to pay this bill without City Council’s approval.”
Walsh conceded that a lack of documentation could create suspicion, with savings account holdings estimated at $70,000-80,000. “It seemed like you’re almost trying to hide funds from the city in that 501(c)(3), which is where our suspicion comes in,” he said.
Reetz contended that a substantial number of donors wishing to remain anonymous complicated the situation, something the mayor acknowledges as a legitimate concern and something that he claims can be censored in reports to the city.
The withholding of the appointment was a card Clark said was holding in his back pocket to garner cooperation. “Maybe I was hasty, maybe I wasn’t, but it was a decision I made,” he said. For Fire Chief appointments, the mayor is responsible for making an appointment.
“I kind of figured it was going to happen, based on previous actions,” Reetz told the Pilot-Tribune.
Clark said he wants to “do this the right way,” so that “nobody gets in trouble,” something he claims there is potential for with the current situation.
“We’re not trying to take your money or do anything, but by law that money belongs to the City of Alta, and City Council is the one that makes decisions on how to spend and budget it,” he said. “Unless we know what’s in there, that’s difficult.”
Nobody is sure where the conflict is headed from here, but Bubba says the de-escalation will depend on what the mayor does next.