By JESSE BURKHARDT
Citing insurance liability, the Fire Commissioners for District No. 3 have informed the local community councils that it will no longer permit the councils to hold their meetings in local fire halls.
In recent months, the Husum-BZ Community Council has been meeting at the Husum Fire Station. The Snowden Community Council has been holding its meetings at the Cherry Lane Fire Station.
In an April 15 letter addressed to the Snowden Community Council and the Husum/BZ Community Council, Mollie Krall, secretary for Klickitat County Fire District No. 3, explained that the Fire Commissioners had discussed insurance coverage for public use of the district's fire stations.
"After lengthy discussions with our insurance carrier ... and the Prosecuting Attorney of Klickitat County, it is the decision of the (Fire) Commissioners that anyone wishing to hold meetings or event will have to have the following: Proof of insurance coverage, facility use agreement with indemnification and hold harmless language. This coverage is available ... for $83.32 per month per meeting or event," read an excerpt of the letter. "The district is unable to pay this added expense out of district funds as this is not related to fire expense."
Husum Fire Chief Jerry Jones said the Fire District did not want to force the councils out, but pointed out that a costly lawsuit could put the district at risk.
"The whole thing came up by what the Prosecuting Attorney put in the newspaper. That brought to light concerns we might have as to liability," Jones explained. "This is what our insurance company told us we should do."
In a commentary that appeared in The Enterprise on March 12, Klickitat County Prosecuting Attorney Tim O'Neill wrote that community councils "have no legal basis as an agency of county government," and are not provided any legal protection by the county. Thus, according to O'Neill, the councils "have no immunity from a lawsuit filed by disaffected community members."
That determination raised concerns that fire districts could become entangled in liability issues under certain circumstances, a risk Fire District No. 3 decided it could not accept.
The chairs of the respective councils expressed disappointment in the unexpected announcement.
"The Snowden and Husum-BZ community councils have learned that Fire District No. 3 will no longer permit us to meet in the fire halls without insurance, which costs about $80 per meeting," said Jim Tindall, chair of the Husum-BZ Corner Community Council.
Tindall said his council has an alternative meeting location in place.
"The Husum-BZ Council has already agreed to meet at the Wet Planet Whitewater facility in Husum," said Tindall.
Louis Huszar, chair of the Snowden Community Council, said he did not know why the move was happening.
"We've been holding our meetings in the fire station here for over 30 years, ever since the creation of the council," Huszar explained. "I don't understand where this issue is coming from. It goes back to this discreditation of the community councils emanating from the county Prosecuting Attorney's office. Everybody is up in arms and scared about liability issues."
Huszar said the directive to keep the councils from meeting at the fire stations seemed to be an overreaction.
"We meet once a month for a couple hours," Huszar explained. "If I get a chance to meet with the Fire Commissioners, I will appeal to their reason. There was no meeting cutoff date in the letter from the Fire District secretary, so I'm hoping and praying we can slide this for a couple months so the Community Council has time to consider the issues."
Huszar added that he was still pondering what the council would do if they could no longer meet at the Cherry Lane Fire Station.
"I received a letter from the Fire District secretary, but there has been no opportunity yet for the Community Council to comment on it," said Huszar.
Jones said he understood the feelings of the council chairs.
"It's kind of a bummer. We've been doing this for so long, and would like to continue," Jones said. "This policy is not anything we want, but then again we have to look at the district also, especially in this day and age."
Huszar noted that the Snowden council's next meeting was scheduled for May 5.
"We're sort of scrambling around," Huszar said. "If we have to look for another meeting place, we will do that."
Huszar also pointed out that the council has been very supportive of the local Fire District.
"The county Economic Development Authority doles out money every year to the community councils, and we always request money for the Fire District," said Huszar.