Friday, May 9, 2014

Novato fire board scandal a 'cautionary tale,' (Marin County) grand jury says

By Janis Mara
Marin Independent Journal

Taxpayers need to pay more attention to the local boards they elect or risk problems like the ones that developed at the Novato Fire District, according to the Marin County Civil Grand Jury.

Among other things, the board and district have been sued by former chief Marc Revere, alleging defamation in an ongoing lawsuit stemming from Revere's abrupt 2012 resignation amid accusations of misusing public funds. The grand jury wrote a report without findings, "a cautionary tale for voters and boards of directors alike," to avoid influencing the lawsuit, officials said.

"We were gratified to find that the (board) had learned from the mistakes that were made and had instituted needed changes and new policies, for which they should be commended," the report said.

"However "... the problems "... are not unique to this particular board," the report said. "This is a cautionary tale" that "may motivate taxpayers to pay more attention to the activities of local boards," the report said.

"We wanted to state the facts as we knew them, but we didn't want to come to any conclusions that would impact the outcome of the (lawsuit)," said Nadine Muller, the jury foreperson.

"It (the report) shows that we have put into place new committees and passed new policies," said board Vice President Tomas Kaselionis. "We are putting a lot of effort into making sure we don't let the organization fall into where it may have been during the prior chief's tenure, and that goes from the perspective of board engagement as well as staff engagement." Kaselionis was not interviewed by the grand jury for its report, he said.

The grand jury's investigation was sparked by a complaint lodged in May 2013 alleging that the board "expended taxpayer money in a frivolous manner with no regard for maintaining essential services, following internal policies, California law or government transparency."

In response, the grand jury investigated the board's oversight, fiscal management and transparency.

When the grand jury interviews people, it is done on a confidential basis so they will speak freely. Hence, Muller would not identify any of the sources interviewed.

Regarding oversight, "numerous sources" said fire department morale was at an all-time low when Revere ran the department, and department members said command staff was in "a constant state of fear and intimidation," the report said.

"The claim filed by the battalion chief against the former fire chief and deputy chief contained serious allegations," the report said. This was referring to the fact that the district reached a $250,000 settlement in 2013 with a former battalion chief who claimed verbal abuse and retaliation by Revere and former deputy chief Eric Nickel.

However, "The board members interviewed by the Grand Jury maintained, nevertheless, that they were not aware of any complaints about the chief," the report said.

With regard to fiscal management, Revere was paid $16,364 in overtime in 2011 and Nickel was paid $11,791, despite the fact that both positions are exempt from overtime under the Fair Labor Standards Act and there is no provision in fire district policy for the issuance of overtime, the report said.

"By June 2013, staff salaries had been negotiated down by $350,000 but overtime pay over the same three-year period (2010-2013) rose by $900,000," the report said.

A new IT system that cost nearly a half-million dollars was installed without a budget and without being put out to bid, and board members have said they did not approve the expenditure and the purchase violated district open bidding policies.

In May 2011, the board spent nearly $1 million on project management for Station 64, a new Ignacio fire station which still has not been built. More than $2 million has been spent on rent on a temporary station, plus teardown and decontamination of the old one, the report said.

Rebuilding Station 64 will cost around $4 million. The board will vote on a bid to rebuild the station Wednesday.

As to transparency, the report cited a board quote that appeared in Novato Patch when Revere stepped down in December 2012, to the effect that the former chief was retiring "and that's the information we'll be releasing."

The report also mentioned that "it took filing three (Public Records Act requests) for officials to respond to the reporter making inquiries," referring to a Marin Independent Journal story in which board members said Revere chose immediate retirement in December 2012 after he was confronted with alleged violations of district credit card and financial policies.

The report also detailed "important decisions" the board made to get the district back on track.

The new fire chief, Mark Heine, "appears to be working closely with (the board) and the Novato Firefighters Association. He attends every board meeting and helps prepare the agenda," the report said.

"The chief and the financial director now routinely review policies that were not closely adhered to in the past, such as submitting receipts for every item charged on a credit card," the report said.

A policy committee and a financial committee were created, additional training on performance management and discipline for first-line supervisors began and an outside audit firm was hired to examine district finances.

Also, the lines of communication between rank and file firefighters and the board are more open than they have been in years, the report said.

"One of the things that has always made us such a strong organization is our ability to grow and learn from our experiences," said Heine in an email. "As the grand jury report indicates, we have made significant changes to ensure consistency in ethical and transparent business practices that address the concerns raised by the grand jury."

Heine pointed to the changes outlined in the report, including what he described as "a new purchasing policy that provides strict guidelines on purchasing and expenditures."

The chief added, "My expenses are reviewed by the board's finance committee and our finance director and are approved by the board of directors."

"While investigating many special districts in Marin County, the grand jury heard repeatedly that members of the public don't come to board meetings. ... We expect an elected board to provide oversight, practice prudent financial management and be ... transparent. As citizens, it is our responsibility to make sure they do just that," the report said.

The Novato Fire District board is meeting Wednesday and will consider awarding a bid to a contractor for the construction of Fire Station 64, among other things.

"As a board member, I am committed to following through with rebuilding Station 64 in the most responsible way," Kaselionis said. "We have acknowledged the bids we received — that was something the grand jury saw as an opportunity. I am going to see through that we do build that fire station in the right way."

Contact Janis Mara via email at Follow her at

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