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Fire district stays neutral in lawsuit against county

In filing with Superior Court

Klickitat County Fire Commissioners in Fire District No. 3 are remaining neutral in a lawsuit filed by a group of residents seeking to withdraw from the fire district.

In a filing with Superior Court in Klickitat County, the "Committee to Withdraw from Klickitat County Fire Protection District No. 3" asked the court "to compel compliance by the Klickitat County Board of Commissioners to set and hold a public hearing on petition to withdraw from Fire Protection District No. 3."

The lawsuit comes in the wake of a decision by the Klickitat County Commissioners to not process the group's withdrawal petitions any further.

The area at the heart of the dispute is located north of the city of White Salmon. Because the area is closer to White Salmon, the White Salmon Fire Department is usually the first to respond in emergencies. As a result, some residents are questioning why their taxes should go to Fire District No. 3.

"Our purpose is to get our fire tax dollars to the city that provides our first response for fire emergencies," explained Nancy Sliwa, chair of the Committee to Withdraw from Klickitat County Fire Protection District No. 3. "We feel it is unfair for city taxpayers to have to subsidize our fire protection."

In the wake of the legal actions, Fire District No. 3 Fire Chief Chuck Virts said the district's Fire Commissioners have three options.

"They can support the withdrawal group; support the county in its position; or remain neutral," Virts said. "They haven't officially come forward with a written position yet."

Virts said the Fire Commissioners wanted to remain a neutral party.

"The Fire Commissioners here at Fire District No. 3 remained neutral in the suit, taking no action other than to contact the fire district attorney for guidance," Virts explained. "Prior to the filing of the lawsuit, the district was in receipt of a legal opinion stating that it appeared the County Commissioners' decision to not process the withdrawal petition any further was correct."

In June, the Fire Commissioners of Fire District No. 3 expressed support for withdrawing the area north of White Salmon from the district. On June 17, in a 2-0 vote, the Fire Commissioners passed a resolution approving the withdrawal of that portion of the fire district.

"Whereas the commissioners of Fire District No. 3 find that the removal of the revised withdrawal area ... will be to the benefit of the residents of the area and conducive to the general welfare of the balance of Fire District No. 3 ... the Board of Commissioners of Fire District No. 3 ... have by unanimous vote approved the withdrawal of the revised withdrawal area from Fire District No. 3," read a portion of the resolution.

Fire Commissioners James Hulbert and Les Penny supported the resolution. Fire Commissioner John Riggelman did not vote.

Hulbert said there was one overriding reason why he agreed that removing the territory from Fire District No. 3 made sense.

"District commissioners find withdrawal of the territory described in the resolution would benefit residents of the territory because the withdrawal territory is located for six to eight miles from Fire District No. 3 fire response equipment," explained Hulbert in a letter to the Klickitat County Commissioners after the vote. "The White Salmon Fire Department is located from one to two miles from the withdrawal territory and can provide a much quicker first response for fire emergencies."

However, after the Fire Commissioners' vote, the Klickitat County Commissioners declined to accept the Fire District's resolution.

In a July 13 letter addressed to the Fire Commissioners of Fire District No. 3, the County Commissioners explained that they had reviewed a petition for removal of a specified territory from the fire district and did not believe the petition was acceptable.

"Upon advice of legal counsel, the Board [of County Commissioners] has determined that the petitions do not comply with the statutory requirements and process for withdrawal of territory from a fire district," the commissioners wrote. "As a result, no further action will be taken by the county on the petition."

"We are disappointed that the County Board of Commissioners have spent considerable taxpayer money on Seattle lawyers in an effort to delay the petition process," Sliwa said. "It is our position that the Board must either agree with the Fire Commissioner's resolution, or disagree with it. If they disagree, then they schedule the election. They should not be spending taxpayer dollars to find some technicalities to try and stop the process. They can disagree with the decision the Fire Commissioners made, but it is not their responsibility to check if the Fire Commissioners met the letter of the law in the process."

After the lawsuit was filed, the Klickitat County Commissioners said they could not discuss the matter.

"We cannot talk about it because it is pending litigation," explained Commissioner Rex Johnston.

Late last year, the Klickitat County Auditor's Office certified that petitions the Committee to Withdraw had filed to put the questions before voters exceeded the required 10 percent of the registered voters in the specified area. The Committee to Withdraw also made a deposit of $4,500, a requirement to proceed with the withdrawal process.

The county subsequently contracted with Foster Pepper, a Seattle law firm, to review the withdrawal committee's petitions.

"We conclude that neither the petitions nor the resolutions substantially comply with the requirements," read an excerpt from a letter signed by attorney Stephen DiJulio of Foster Pepper. "We therefore recommend that the Board of County Commissioners not fix a time and place for a hearing on the petitions."

Sliwa said that despite the roadblock the county has put up, residents seeking to withdraw from Fire District No. 3 would not be giving up their efforts.

"I don't believe we, as the petitioners for withdrawal, should stop working toward a more equitable and permanent solution to our concerns about fire protection," Sliwa explained.

Sliwa added that she believed the action by the County Commissioners was not productive for Klickitat County.

"It is our understanding that the petition process has to play itself out, one way or the other," Sliwa said. "At some time, we expect there will be an election and the voters will decide on the withdrawal request. We believe the county Board of Commissioners must schedule the election, unless they agree with the Klickitat County Fire District No. 3 Commissioners to allow the withdrawal to take place without an election. The action by the county board will only serve to delay the process and will cost county taxpayers a lot of money."

Virts said he doesn't like having the Fire Department in the middle of a legal battle.

"We'd like for this to be resolved, and we can move on," Virts said. "We want to move forward with being a Fire Department and let this process play out."


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