Firefighter candidate eligibility questioned

Published on Saturday, 30 August 2014 22:24 - Written by ADAM RUSSELL arussell@tylerpaper.com

The eligibility of an Emergency Services District commissioner candidate actively serving as a firefighter is drawing questions from government watchdogs.

Red Springs Volunteer Department firefighter Charles Wilson, a founding member of the 33-year-old department, is running to serve on the Emergency Services District No. 2 board, a five-member volunteer governing body that controls its policies and purse strings.

A local legislative bill, Senate Bill 1256, became law and created single-member districts for Emergency Services Districts No. 1 and No. 2 rather than have them appointed by county commissioners.

The bill disqualifies people with direct ties to the district from serving as emergency services commissioners. The Texas Health and Safety Code declares a person ineligible if a person is “providing professional services to the district, a commissioner of the same district; or a person who is an employee or volunteer of an emergency services organization providing emergency services to the district.” If the person is “an employee of a commissioner of the same district, attorney, or other person providing professional services to the district; is serving as an attorney, consultant, or architect or in some other professional capacity for the district or an emergency services organization providing emergency services to the district” they are not eligible to serve.

Wilson was unopposed before Anthony Bruner, a Grassroots America – We the People member, announced his intent to run as a write-in candidate.

The early interpretation by the county attorney is that Wilson could serve (if he wins the election) as long as he relinquishes his position at the fire department before being sworn in. A formal complaint with the District Attorney’s office could challenge Wilson’s ability to serve.

District Attorney Matt Bingham was not able to officially address the interpretation of the law due to court cases this week.

The Tyler Morning Telegraph contacted the Attorney General’s office, which deferred any interpretation to the Smith County Election Office and the district attorney.

Sharon Guthrie, a former ESD No. 2 commissioner, said she didn’t believe Wilson was eligible because of his involvement at Red Springs. She said Wilson’s place on the board represents a conflict of interest and continuation of a “good ‘ol boy” system that has plagued the district since its inception in 2007.

Wilson was not available for comment by press time.

Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, filed Senate Bill 1856 and Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, filed House Bill 3257. But neither bill was close to passage by the end of the session so the two effectively amended their bills to SB 1256 filed by Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville and it passed.

Schaefer said the disqualification language was taken from existing law regarding conflict of interest provisions to protect taxpayer dollars. He said he had general discussions with stakeholders regarding conflict of interests when the legislation was drafted.

“A background and professional experience is not an issue,” Schaefer said. “The issue is, will they continue that involvement? The spirit (of the law) is to make sure there was no inherent conflict of interest.”

Schaefer said he suspects there has been a prior ruling on disqualifications regarding other smaller governing bodies, such as school boards.

Eltife said he filed his version of the bill after county commissioners requested the ESD boards be subject to voters. He agreed.

“There were a lot of issues within the ESD and I totally agreed it was taxation without representation,” he said.

Eltife said stakeholders discussed portions of the bill but that no one ever mentioned disqualifiers. The language regarding disqualifications was the same in all three versions introduced.

JoAnn Fleming, executive director of Grassroots America – We the People, which supported making the board positions elected, believes the “original intent of the law has been missed.”

Mrs. Guthrie said her concern is commissioners maintaining ties with volunteer departments and making preferential decisions.

“We just want the money spent wisely and legally,” she said. “That’s the whole goal no matter who is in office.”