Burning questions 

Frenchtown Fire District board faces mounting challenges

Tammy Zunski isn't a gadfly—or at least she wasn't one until about two years ago, when she launched a crusade against the Frenchtown Rural Fire District Board of Trustees.

"They're destroying the district," says the 40-year-old Zunski, who, with her husband John, owns Sportsman's Bar in Alberton. "They're destroying the fire department."

click to enlarge Missoula Independent news
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • It’s been a rocky four years for the Frenchtown Rural Fire District as it deals with four ongoing lawsuits and four out-of-court legal settlements.

The Frenchtown Rural Fire District consists of 125 square miles and roughly 12,000 residents in Missoula and Mineral counties. Many of the district's homes are isolated, miles from services and off unpaved roads.

Zunski volunteered for the district as an emergency medical technician in 2007 and 2008. She's also a friend to Jenny Ross. In July, Ross received $325,000 in an out-of-court settlement resulting from a lawsuit that alleged the former Frenchtown Fire Chief, John Bibler, intimidated and sexually harassed her. The suit alleged that the board of trustees, charged to supervise Bibler, was negligent in its oversight responsibilities.

Under the terms of the settlement, Ross isn't allowed to speak publicly about her experiences. Zunski, however, is committed to holding the board accountable. She's filed two lawsuits against the trustees. They allege the board violated open meeting laws and kept financial information sequestered from the public.

Under state law, elected officials are allowed to meet in private, in what's called an executive session, to discuss private personnel matters and pending litigation. But Zunski says the board routinely takes care of business outside of the public eye.

For instance, Zunski caught the board talking about toolboxes behind closed doors in February 2011, after a public meeting and an executive session had adjourned. She tracked the board down, rapped on the closed door and recorded their responses on her cellphone's video camera. She posted the footage on YouTube. "I said, 'Oops.' And they said, 'Yep, you got us,'" Zunski says. "It doesn't get anymore black and white."

The Frenchtown Rural Fire District, as with other such entities across the state, operates autonomously. Zunski says she's become the board's watchdog because it seems no one else is willing to do the job.

"The only resort for a citizen who views an open-meeting violation, and I'm guessing 99.9 percent of the citizens don't know this, is you have to file a lawsuit within 30 days," Zunski says. "So not only is there a crazy time constraint but it's a huge fiscal obligation to a citizen to complain."

Zunski isn't the only one alleging board mismanagement. In January, former district employee Cindy Wyatt said trustees shirked their obligation to supervise Bibler. According to the lawsuit, Bibler used a pseudonym to post Wyatt's confidential personnel information on Facebook.

In March, former Fire District employee Frank Stanley, who continues to volunteer for the department, filed a lawsuit that alleges trustees violated open meeting laws when they fired him during a closed-door session.

Since 2009, trustees have resolved three other grievances out of court. Those include settlements with former Fire Chief Scott Waldron, Bruce Winter, a volunteer, and the district's former operations chief, Steven Roy.

According to public records, the district accrued no legal bills in 2008. This year, it paid $54,000. Financial statements show the fire department's insurance premiums doubled to $33,821 between 2008 and 2012.

As legal bills mount, revenue is drying up. Between 2008 and 2012, the district's general fund balance shrunk by 13 percent, amounting to $1.3 million this year.

To what extent the budget crunch—along with the litigation—is impacting operations is debatable. Four months into his new job as Frenchtown Fire Chief, Joe Calnan acknowledges money is tight.

"There's no question that the financial side, that's not helping," he says.

To help bolster the department's finances, trustees this month increased the district's mill levy by 7.9 percent. That equates to about $9.98 more a year on the tax bill for a property valued at $200,000.

Calnan aims to use the approximately $45,000 generated by the mill levy to maintain the district's fire trucks and ambulances. He's also in the process of compiling data to evaluate emergency response times.

In the meantime, the chief says he's making do with what he has. "I'm doing my best."

Montana statute authorizes the county attorney's office to provide legal assistance to rural fire districts. Deputy Missoula County Attorney James McCubbin is representing the Frenchtown board. He says trustees are striving to make improvements and notes they recently attended a training session on public meetings laws.

McCubbin says it's not unusual for volunteer boards to face a learning curve. "It's always hard with volunteer boards getting everybody to understand what the laws are," he says. "I think they're complying with the law currently."

Zunski isn't persuaded. She says the only way for the district to heal from its rocky past is to get rid of the entire current board.

"You cannot heal from a wound if the infection has still got something in it, and the common denominator in this wound is the board," she says. "So, until this board is removed and some accountability and oversight is put in place, that's the only time trust can begin again and we can start building."

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