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Firefighters, medics confused over Mo. law regarding serving on boards

Lawyers disagree on how the term 'voluntary' applies to the rule prohibiting fire, EMS from serving on boards in another district

By Jesse Bogan
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch

ST. LOUIS — Missouri law says employees of fire or ambulance districts can't serve on boards for other districts. The Missouri attorney general's office has even weighed in on the issue with a formal opinion that reiterates the rule.

While some board members over the years have stepped down because of this issue, others have not.

That's true at the Meramec Ambulance District, which provides emergency response to parts of Franklin, Jefferson and St. Louis counties.

Three of its six board members work for other districts, including chairman Patrick Holland, an employee of West County EMS and Fire.

Holland, who has been on Meramec's board about 20 years, didn't return a call seeking comment. But attorney Frank Foster, who represents about 125 emergency response agencies in Missouri, including Meramec, said Holland and the other board members are in the clear, based on Foster's interpretation of the state statute.

He points to an exception written in the law: "an employee of a fire protection district or an ambulance district may serve as a member of a voluntary fire protection district board or a voluntary ambulance district board."

Foster's interpretation hinges on the word "voluntary." Though Meramec has paid employees, board members volunteer without compensation.

Still, Foster said if he finds out about candidates running for elected fire or ambulance district board positions who have jobs at other districts, he tries to discourage them from pursuing the post.

"I advise them just to avoid confusion," Foster said.

But if the issue comes up after a board member is already in office, he says it doesn't matter.

"All are unpaid, so we don't think there is a violation," Foster said of the board positions.

The 1996 attorney general opinion seems to find different meaning in "voluntary."

According to the opinion, by then-Attorney General Jay Nixon, the word "voluntary" modifies the noun "district." "We conclude that an employee of any fire protection or ambulance district may not serve on the board of any fire protection or ambulance district unless it is a 'voluntary' district; that is, one which does not compensate its workers."

The opinion says the purpose of the law is to "prevent conflicts of interest and secure loyalty."

Foster said the attorney general opinion is just that — an opinion — not a ruling from a high court. He said the original effort behind the statute was "trying to keep unionized members off the board."

Foster said he wasn't aware of anybody successfully prosecuting a case involving the alleged violation of the statute.

But some have stepped down.

In 1999, four members of the Big River Ambulance District Board accused of holding their board positions illegally in Jefferson County, resigned rather than face a court inquiry at taxpayers' expense.

In 2000, Jeff Roorda was appointed to fill a vacancy on the Rock Township Ambulance District board in Arnold after a member stepped down because he was afraid he was violating the statute in question.

Since then, Rep. Roorda, D-Barnhart, has unsuccessfully tried to change the statute.

"I think, to a certain extent, it's unsettled law," said Roorda, who also works as business manager of the St. Louis police officers union.

He added: "A community should be able to elect people who understand issues affecting fire and ambulance districts."

Meramec Ambulance District Chief Christine Neal said nobody has complained about the three board members who have paid jobs at other districts. Apart from Holland, she confirmed that Ronald Suerig, elected in 2013, works for High Ridge Fire Protection District, and Floyd Blake, elected in April, works for Pacific Fire Protection District.

Meramec has 47 full- and part-time employees who help respond to about 3,000 calls each year in a 240-square-mile area that includes Pacific, Villa Ridge, Catawissa, Robertsville, Gray Summit, Labadie and St. Albans.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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