By Kristen Miller
DASSEL, MN The Dassel Volunteer Fire Department election process was once again a lengthy topic of discussion at last Monday’s Dassel City Council meeting.
The discussion stemmed from recommendations from the League of Minnesota Cities regarding fire department elections and bylaws which were handed out by Council Member Jason Benzing at the Oct. 1 meeting. Benzing explained these were documents that he came across during the disciplinary process for four firefighters that took place last spring.
Since volunteer firefighters are considered employees of the city, particularly when it comes to insurance and worker’s compensation, the League recommends all departments go away from the election process to prevent any potential lawsuits.
Instead, the League states that the best way to determine if someone meets the minimum requirements is through an objective selection process involving applications and testing.
In addition, the League suggests that since the fire department is under the umbrella of the city, it does not need its own bylaws.
“Bylaws may create confusion and establish unclear expectations about how the fire department is run, or whether the fire department is a stand-alone agency,” the League states.
This, however, “this does not mean that fire department policies currently contained in the bylaws are necessarily inappropriate. It may simply mean that some provisions are better placed somewhere else,” according to the League documents.
In regards to the election of officers, the League recommends selection, rather an election.
The League cautions “ Using election, or rule by majority vote, to make membership and promotional decisions creates risks every department should be aware of and should not take.”
During the meeting, Mayor Mike Scanlon cited the example the League gave of an age discrimination lawsuit that could potentially arise from the election process.
“The council isn’t saying there have been any issues (with this department),” Scanlon said.
Fire Chief Dale Grochow and Assistant Chief Dave Johnson spoke on behalf of the membership, and said the department was in favor of keeping the election process as it is now, which is by ballot.
Council Member Bob Lalone said that selection in fire departments is now becoming the norm for cities, rather than elections. “It has a lot to do with risk,” he commented.
Scanlon asked whether the council should roll the fire department into the personnel committee and have it abide by the same rules as the liquor store manager and public works department.
It was noted that either way, the city policy takes precedent and the city supersedes the fire department bylaws.
Grochow explained that the department’s membership takes ownership in the volunteer organization and it doesn’t want to lose that by not being a part of the decision-making process.
Firefighter Dennis Johnson addressed the council saying that the members know more about who is qualified to be an officer than the council, and that the decision should be left up to the membership.
Firefighter Erin Tormanen also addressed the council, saying that the fire department is not like any other city department and is completely unique.
As a firefighter, “When the pagers go off, we don’t know what we are dealing with,” he said, explaining that they need someone there guiding them and ultimately ensuring their safety.
He also commented that the election of officers is not a popularity contest, but rather, leadership takes time and experience. “The right leader almost always comes out,” he said.
Benzing noted the election process as it stands now still ultimately comes to the council for final approval. He also noted that the membership would still have input in the officer selection process, if it were to be adopted.
Seeking the assistance from a consultant who is familiar with these issues was recommended by the council.
However, with the fire department elections Monday, Nov. 12, it was decided that the election process would remain the same and the city would look into making changes in the future.
In similar business, Benzing made a motion to postpone implementation of the minimum qualifications of officers as approved at the Oct. 1 meeting in regards to having any written disciplinary actions within one year of the election. As it stands, four firefighters would not have been eligible for officer positions at the upcoming election.
It was brought up that the proper steps weren’t followed on behalf of the administration in regards to written warnings. It was under the staff’s impression that the minutes of the personnel meeting would be sufficient.
The council unanimously approved the motion to postpone the limitations regarding eligibility of officers with previous written disciplinary actions.
In addition, Benzing also suggested someone from the council become a liaison to the fire department in an effort to improve communication between the council and the department. He gave an example that he currently sits on the historical society board as a council liaison. However, no action was taken on this mater.