MEDICINE PARK - A lack of proper procedures and miscommunication over a questionable fire department bank account, allegedly contain- ing approximately $10,000, sparked a confrontational and contentious city council meeting in Medicine Park last week.
More than 35 people showed up at the council session after news of the possible secret account became public. The number attending the session was significantly larger than at normal meetings. Though there were 26 items on the agenda, although the majority of the audience was there to discuss a recent letter Medicine Park Mayor Jennifer Ellis sent to David McCoy, Chief of the Medicine Park Volunteer Fire Department. The letter is titled “RE: Medicine Park Volunteer Fire Department account at All American Bank.” “Through a recent open records request, I was made aware of the above-referenced account,” Ellis’ letter begins. “I was also made aware that your position in having this account and initially not turning over the information was due to the fact that you stated you had created a 501(c)(3) for the fire department.” Ellis’ letter continues, “I have asked the staff and our legal counsel to research this and have found the following:
1. The state has a registration for a nonprofit which reflects that it is connected to the fire department.
2. That being said, there is no registration for a 501(c)(3) anywhere.
3. The account to which you refer is in the name of the Medicine Park Volunteer Fire Department.
4. Per the state Auditor’s opinion, this is against state law.
5. In 2003/2004, this exact issue was raised by a previous board and the determination was that you should turn over the bank account to the town.
Finally, although you redacted what should be public information on those statements, the balance of an excess of $10,000 is legible.” The letter goes on to state, “I am hoping that we can resolve this matter quietly by having you turn over to the town the account.”
(A copy of the letter is posted on www.southwestledger.news) McCoy complained to the council that the letter “was demoralizing” to his department. He explained the account was created years ago when the “town had no money” and the department needed a new engine for a fire truck. “We have saved the town more than $30,000 through the years,” McCoy said, noting the “potato fundraisers” and other efforts the department has initiated to raise money. He told the council the funds were used for shirts for his “guys,” equipment and supplies for fundraisers. “You can look at the checkbook,” he said. He emphasized the money in the account had not been misappropriated. During the heated session, Councilman Larry Cofer defended McCoy. “I have complete confidence in how you spend that money.”
COUNCILMAN COFER'S LETTER READ
McCoy then asked that Cofer’s letter be read aloud. The council agreed to the request. Candace McCoy, the chief’s wife, read the letter as a response to Mayor Ellis’s letter. (A copy of letter is posted on www.southwestledger. news) The letter is addressed to Fire Liaison David Schucker and the Medicine Park Board of Trustees. In the letter McCoy contends, “The volunteers agree funds raised in the name of the Medicine Park Volunteer Fire Department will need to be deposited and managed through the Town accounts for the exclusive use of the Fire Department. The MPVFD was unaware of the specific requirements related to fundraising.” The letter goes on to explain in detail the funding needs of the fire department. When the citizen comments portion of the meeting began, Mrs. McCoy contended the letter was ill-received by the fire department. She said fire department members took it as, “We are going to steal your money.” Mayor Ellis said there was no intention to “steal the money” nor place the funds into “general revenue.”
Mrs. McCoy stated the funds had been moved out of the previous account and into the nonprofit account. She said members of the fire department have created an organization to be the department’s fundraising arm. When asked about 501(c)(3) status, Chief McCoy said, “By law, we have three years to get that done.” They did circulate a copy of the state documents showing a filing for a nonprofit corporation. Volunteer firefighter Christine Booth told council members, “These funds were raised for the fire department.” She highlighted the efforts of the McCoys, stating that she has seen them donate their time and personal money to aide the department. “We wouldn’t have our new fire station if it wasn’t for them,” Booth said. “There are no misappropriations.” Ellis quickly responded, “There are no allegations of that ... we have to follow the law.”
CONTENTIOUS, DISRUPTIVE CROWD
The crowd was contentious throughout the discussion and became disruptive during the public comment portion. Several residents on both sides of the issue made outbursts during the discussion. During one such outburst, a resident stated she wanted accountability when it came to the money she had donated to the fire department. One of the many firefighters in attendance retorted loudly that the woman had never donated to the department.
MAYOR URGES EVERYONE TO REMAIN CIVIL
The outbursts forced Mayor Ellis to quickly remind everyone to remain civil during the discussion. At the conclusion of the public comments, Councilman Schucker chided Mayor Ellis, telling the crowd the mayor did not have the authority to send the letter out. He noted that he is the council liaison to the fire department and the request should have gone through him. Ellis explained that records requests go through the city clerk and she sent the letter in an effort to respond in a timely fashion. Councilman Schucker retorted, “You don’t have to respond immediately.” Oklahoma Statute reads, “Public bodies are required to designate someone to be available at all times during their regular business hours to release records. OKLA. STAT. tit. 51, &3167 24A.5(6). According to a PowerPoint presentation prepared and distributed by the Oklahoma Attorney General’s office, a public official who willfully violates the Open Records Act is guilty of a misdemeanor and can receive up to a year in the county jail and a $500 fine. The PowerPoint goes on to say, “A public body shall designate certain persons who are authorized to release records of the public body for inspection, copying, or mechanical reproduction. At least one person shall be available at all times to release records during regular business hours of the public body. Section 24A.5(7) Special considerations given to public bodies maintaining less than 30 hours of regular business per week. Section 24A.6.” Medicine Park is not subject to that provision because city hall is staffed a minimum of 35 hours a week according to their website. “Cities often vest the responsibility of responding to requests in the clerk with guidance or some level of oversight by the city attorney in order to remove the politics from it,” said a legal source familiar with the Oklahoma Open Records Act and municipal policies. The source asked not to be quoted directly. The source went on to cite OKLA. STAT. tit. 51, § 24A.5 which states “public records "must be open to any person for inspection, copying, and/or mechanical reproduction during regular business hours." The source stated that city councilmembers are rarely on-site during regular business hours.”
'NOT A RAILROAD'
“This is no way to run a railroad,” Schucker said at the end of his comments. Mayor Ellis shot back, “It’s not a railroad.” Schucker introduced a motion that he, as the department’s liaison, would be the councilmember to discuss the issues with the fire department in the future and he would be the one to report back to the board next month. Cofer seconded the motion and it passed unanimously. The Town Council meets the third Tuesday of each month immediately following the Public Works Authority meeting at 6 p.m.