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Powergrab at NCCFD?

Offensive emails, hidden agendas - at taxpayer expense?


By: YubaNet

NEVADA CITY, Calif. March 5, 2013 - Two years of power struggle may come to head at a special meeting called for this Thursday at 7:00 pm by the Nevada County Consolidated Fire District (NCCFD)board.

One possible outcome of the Thursday meeting is the appointment of an Interim Chief, with sources citing the current board chair Keith Grueneberg as a possible candidate for the post. He is a former fire chief and could volunteer to fill the position until a permanent chief is hired. The search for NCCFD's next chief is underway, with the help of a consulting firm recommended by Grueneberg.

The district has been in the news a lot lately, mostly with negative headlines. Feuds between a labor union and management, actions by directors either ignorant of or disregarding the Brown Act, concessions given back to one group of employees to the exclusion of others, a Grand Jury investigation, resignations or retirements of key personnel, failure to come to an agreement with neighboring agencies, the list goes on and on.

Special meeting for this?

NCCFD's board normally meets every third Thursday of every month. This morning, a special meeting agenda was posted with only 2 items up for discussion and possible action by the board:

1. Discussion and possible action regarding contingency plans for Chief Ray's absence.

2. Discussion and possible action regarding extending the hours of Pam Miller to 40 due to additional workload. Temporary only.

Both items are brought by Chairman Grueneberg.

Acting Chief David Ray will be taking a one week vacation after this "special meeting." Every organization, be it a Fortune 500 company, the U.S. government or a fire district doesn't come to a screeching halt when the chief goes on vacation.

Division Chief Ray mentioned his vacation plans on several occasions at board meetings and workshops. Generally, when a Chief is absent from his district a Battalion Chief takes over the day-to-day management. This happens frequently during fire season when strike teams leave their jurisdiction to assist other agencies in battling large incidents. Last summer, Chief Ray was with a strike team on the Chips Fire and no special meeting was held to fill the 'power vacuum.'

Some Background

The NCCFD Board voted on November 15, 2012 to give back concessions made by the safety employees group (firefighters) only. At the time, the exact cost of returning the concessions was unknown. Concessions by administrative employees were not returned.

This vote came after negotiations between the board's representatives (Directors Grueneberg, Hitchcock and Rhodes, Personnel Committee Members) and the Local Firefighters Union 3800 representing the Non-Management Safety Employees.

Click on the image to view the redacted copy of the email as a pdf file.
"Hooked on Ebonics?" Email

YubaNet has obtained a copy of the email - with the subject line "Hooked on Ebonics?" and containing a link to a YouTube video - sent on Nov. 5 2012 by then-candidate Tom Carrington to Keith Grueneberg, then-Vice-Chair of the NCCFD board and lead labor negotiator.

Prior to the vote on returning concessions, Grueneberg forwarded the email to the head of the district's labor union (IAFF Local 3800 Firefighters Union) Wyatt Howell with the message: "Hey Wyatt, you need to watch this, it is like talking with our administration!!!"

Howell in turn forwarded the email to at least one district email address and other recipients.

On its administrative staff the district employs an Operations Support Specialist who happens to be African-American.

YubaNet redacted the email to not disclose private email addresses and information on people not connected to the district.

Asked by YubaNet's reporter for a comment on why he forwarded the email and his remarks to Howell, Grueneberg stated, "This is a private email. Wyatt was having a down day, he was getting the runaround in the administration and I mean us too and that's why I said that."

When asked if he felt the email was offensive, he said, "No, I don't think it's that."

The email landed on the district's email server and copies have been widely circulated.

Editor's Note: The video posted in the original email has been removed by YouTube. A search on YouTube for "Hooked on Ebonics" leads to this video, which has been confirmed to be the same video as the one referenced in the email.

Editor's Note 2: To clarify the source of the email, please note: The pdf file of the "Hooked on Ebonics" email was first brought to our attention by NCCFD's former HR Administrator Lisa LaBarbera. She stated she received a printed copy of the email via USPS at her home address, with no return address or sender's name on the envelope. LaBarbera surmises the email made its way through the NCCFD ranks and someone thought she should be aware of it. Before going public with the email, she attempted to bring it to the attention of three board members during a Dec. 14 meeting where this and another email were discussed - as well as the ongoing workplace mobbing and hostility directed towards Lisa.

At the time, board members only had their private email addresses to communicate with district staff. Email addresses with @nccfire.com were issued to them later. The effects of such an offensive email on the interactions between district staff - or the outcome of salary negotiations - are unknown.

This email is just one in a series of unprofessional communications by board and district staff.

What happened next?

In December 2012, instead of voting on a contract with Citygate LLC to find a new permanent chief, Grueneberg suggested the board hold off on any decision before meeting with Ronnie Coleman, a retired State Fire Marshall and consultant based in Elk Grove.

On February 5, 2013, the board agreed to hire FireForce One, Coleman's company, to conduct an operational audit of the district, identify candidates for the Chief's position and provide administrative support for the Acting Chief. The board also voted to not hire an Interim Chief as the services of FireForce One would supplement any current needs.

At the same meeting, Chief David Ray announced his retirement plans for May of 2013. He also mentioned his upcoming vacation.

At the February 21, 2013 meeting, a discussion took place over $3,500 in additional cost billed by the district's external auditor. The additional expenditure stemmed from requests made by the district's finance manager to clarify several items. Included in the auditor's letter justifying the $3,500 was this statement: "The contentious tone of the public comments at the Board meetings, coupled with concerns raised by employees and notification that the grand jury was investigating issues at the District, required that we increase our analyses and testing."

Inside Baseball? Taxpayers ultimately on the hook for 'behind home plate tickets'

Many of the inappropriate comments and even some of the "retirements" could be viewed as simple inside baseball, details relevant only to those immediately affected. However, the ongoing crisis at NCCFD has direct impacts on the district's budget, staff morale and ultimately on residents and taxpayers who fund the district.

Obviously, taxpayers deserve elected board members who are accountable for the actions they take on their behalf and who put the good of the district before private agendas. The public is welcome to attend the upcoming meeting on Thursday, March 7th at 7:00 pm at Station 84 on Coyote Street in Nevada City.


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