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Commissioner White gives county's take on what went awry at KIVFD

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Commissioner Bob White

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By William F. West
Staff Writer

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

KNOTTS ISLAND – Currituck County Commissioner Bob White recently outlined in detail the county’s side of what went wrong in contract talks with the Knotts Island Volunteer Fire Department, which resulted in the county taking over fire protection services in the community.

“We’re at a bad spot right now,” White told a gathering of Knotts Island residents at a town hall-like meeting on Dec. 12. “And we’re trying to do the best we can to get you guys the best service we can.”

According to White, what led to an impasse and Knotts Island Fire Chief Derek Morgan halting volunteer fire protection service on Nov. 8 can be traced back months.

White told the gathering he and fellow commissioners this spring met with the county’s senior staff to discuss the fire departments, as well as “the growing pains” the county is experiencing.

White said a decision was made to make changes to proposed volunteer fire service contracts and to the fire services the county would like provided to residents. He said they included adding more accountability, including some common training and possibly standardizing some equipment.

White said proposed documents were sent out in June to all the volunteer fire departments, with the Knotts Island department and the Crawford and Lower Currituck departments rejecting them.

Specifically, White said Knotts Island department officials struck through the word “cooperate” with Currituck Fire-EMS.

Additionally, he said the Knotts Island department refused to coordinate training with the county agency and wanted to be able to spend thousands of dollars without commission approval.

He also said the Knotts Island department refused to accept Fire-EMS Chief Chip Melton as County Manager Dan Scanlon’s designee in the agreement.

White said the Crawford and Lower Currituck departments asked for and received contract extensions through June 2018, while the Knotts Island department didn’t ask for a contract extension.

The Knotts Island department’s contract expired on Oct. 31.

White said at approximately 8 p.m. on Nov. 8, Knotts Island Fire Chief Morgan emailed Currituck Fire-EMS Chief Melton, asking whether the Knotts Island department’s contract had lapsed.

He said when Melton replied yes, Morgan immediately told Currituck Communications officials his department was suspending firefighting operations. He said Melton unsuccessfully tried to make contact again with Morgan by email and by phone.

He said Melton tried to make clear to Morgan via email the Knotts Island volunteer firefighters were still insured against risk of harm on fire calls in the community because contract negotiations were ongoing.

White emphasized to the audience at the Dec. 12 meeting that the county at no point said the Knotts Island department had to cease operations.

White said that, as a result of the suspended service, the county was left “in a lurch.”  

The county quickly activated a mutual aid firefighting agreement with Virginia Beach, Va., as a temporary measure. On the morning of Nov. 10, Currituck Fire-EMS began having four cross-trained firefighting and medical personnel stationed on Knotts Island around the clock.

During the Dec. 12 meeting, Knotts Island residents asked questions and gave their take about the situation.

Ryan Hodges wanted to know whether the Crawford and Lower Currituck departments had some items they perhaps wanted to change or modify in their proposed contracts. She also wanted to know whether the Crawford, Lower Currituck and Knotts Island departments all gave the same kind of “push-back” in the contract talks.

Currituck Fire-EMS Chief Melton told Hodges he recalled one or two of the items may have been the same.

“In Knotts Island’s case, it was much more extreme,” Melton said. “They were finding fault with a broad base of the bulk of the contract, actually.”

Bill Lamb told the audience he was a longtime Dominion Energy employee in Virginia and a business manager of a union. 

Lamb said the standard procedure in contract negotiations calls for a business leader to present a proposed document, with the terms handed down to the union membership for review.

Lamb then blasted Chief Morgan, who wasn’t in the audience, saying, “It sounded like one individual who thought he was God decided not to bring it to you all, but on his own he just rejected it and broke off negotiations.”

“The whole problem seems to be between one individual who is not here, who did not follow their rules and regulations, that has broken off negotiations of the contract,” Lamb said.

Lamb asked whether any of the now-former Knotts Island volunteers in the audience were notified about the situation.

John Harley,  chairman of Knotts Island’s volunteer firefighter board of directors, said a contract was due at the start of July. Harley said he and fellow directors got a copy of the proposed document approximately a week earlier.

Noting he works in Elizabeth City and other board members work across the border in Virginia, Harley spoke of the difficulty in getting together a panel in time to review such a proposed document.

Harley said there were a lot of things the board members either disagreed with or even had questions about, but he said, “We chose not to sign that contract on July 1 or at that time.”

Harley told the audience that on Nov. 8, Chief Morgan made the decision and stated, “We are not responding because we did not have the contract. We do not have the extension.”

Lamb asked whether there was a filing for a contract extension.

Harley said the contract had been extended until the end of October. He said a request for another extension had gone out recently, but he said the request had been denied.

Commissioner Paul Beaumont told the audience that request came through after “the blowup” resulting from Chief Morgan suspending the volunteer firefighting service on Knotts Island.

Beaumont said by the time that request came, the county already had supplemented firefighting assistance on Knotts Island and already had schedules rewritten to respond to needs in the community.

During the meeting, Beaumont wanted to know from Knotts Island board Vice Chairman Marley whether he and fellow board members had sought legal counsel about their issues with the proposed contract.

County Manager Dan Scanlon, providing clarity, told the audience his information was an attorney met with some part of the board and unsuccessfully recommended them signing the document.

According to Harley, the attorney, whom he didn’t identify by name, came in and couldn’t understand board members had additions they wanted written in. Harley said the attorney repeatedly stated, “This is a legal document, sign it.”

Chief Morgan couldn’t be reached for comment by phone later.

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