By Marshall Dunham
During a special meeting on Tuesday, April 26, the Pagosa Fire Protection District (PFPD) made a decision to release an executive session recording to SUN staff after a violation of Colorado Open Meetings Law.
The violation occurred during the regular PFPD meeting on April 12, when, after coming out of executive session to discuss making Assistant Chief Randy Larson the acting fire chief, the PFPD Board of Directors chair LeRoy Lattin began a statement with “We decided ...”
Making decisions in executive session is not allowed. Instead, the board may only discuss the issue at hand and can only make a decision after the board has come out of executive session.
SUN staff requested the recording, and the PFPD held the April 26 meeting to discuss whether to release the recording.
As the board started to discuss whether or not to release the recording, Director David Blake said, “I see no reason not to.”
Director Ken Rogers made a motion, saying “In light of the circumstances and in order to prevent staff and legal expense, I move to waive the executive session privilege to the tape recording of the April 12, 2016, executive session held pursuant to section 24-6-402 for personnel matters related to the fire chief position ...”
Blake seconded the motion, and it proceeded to pass unanimously.
“I wanted to have an executive session to talk over how, if anything, we’re going to do about the chief’s position,” begins Lattin on the recording of the executive session. “We were going to put Randy (Larson) as the interim, even though he’s taking on the responsibilities right now of the assistant chief.”
Later in the recording, one director remarks that Larson “was pretty much doing everything the chief would have done anyways.”
The board talked briefly about Larson’s history, saying he completed his training for firefighting and EMT work down in Texas, and that he worked as a firefighter in Texas before moving up to southwest Colorado.
“My feeling is that he’s very qualified,” said one director. “He would save the department tons of money and time ...”
One director explained that Larson had even previously stated that he planned to “finish out” with the PFPD, regardless of whether or not he becomes fire chief.
“Randy said that he has an aspiration at one of the training sessions ... to turn this department into the finest department in the U.S.,” commented a director. “I think it’s achievable, and it’s only achievable because of the base that’s already there, and therefore, because of that base, I come back to the position that Randy’s a fantastic candidate. There are likely other fantastic candidates out there, and ... I agree he should be the acting (chief) and I suggest to the board that he have some increase in compensation to accept that responsibility and that he understand that he’s clearly a leading candidate for the position, but it is the acting position, it is not the designation or a guarantee that he will be the new chief, and that it will literally be up to the new board or the new five members as to how to proceed from there.”
Director Jason Webb made a comment saying that he has the utmost respect for Larson, but because the position of fire chief is a public, and “criticized” position, the PFPD needs to explore all options for fire chief before handing the full position over to Larson.
The board then discussed how to go about giving Larson a pay raise, knowing that, if a new chief is selected, Larson’s raise would set a precedent for the new chief.
Originally, the idea of giving Larson a $10,000 raise in his salary was pitched, but the board was unsure what to do if Larson wasn’t selected as fire chief, as taking away that raise, in a way, would “punish” Larson, even if he did a stellar job.
One director reminded the board to take in account Diane Bower’s severance package, which totals $31,514.40, and is in addition to the 536 hours of vacation time she is already getting paid for.
“Let me throw this out,” said another director. “Could you bump it five grand instead of ten, with the understanding that that’s where he’s going to stay regardless?”
The board stayed in executive session and retrieved Larson and Diane Bower “so that we’re all in agreement before we go back to public session.”
After retrieving Larson, the board offered him the job of acting fire chief with a $5,000 raise in his yearly salary.
“I accept that, and would be honored to move on from there,” responded Larson.
At the special meeting on April 26, one director said, “I’m just curious if there’s any formal action we need to make in open session relating to anything we discussed in executive session?”
Another director spoke up and said “I’d like to just make a motion that we had discussed in executive session a salary increase for assistant chief to take over the responsibilities of the chief. By him accepting that as the acting chief, we gave him a $5,000 raise for the year.” The motion passsed.
At the end of the meeting, Webb told SUN staff that he was grateful the mistake was caught, and that there was no hostile or malicious intent involved.