The Moscow Volunteer Fire Department may have illegally dodged a public records request seeking to examine its operations.
In a June 8 letter, MVFD attorney Bob Wakefield told Troy Zakariasen, owner of an ambulance company also servicing the region, the fire department would not honor a voluminous request for records.
On May 29, Zakariasen requested numerous records, including profit and loss sheets and other financial documents from MVFD and Moscow city.
Moscow city offered to provide whatever documents it could in a separate letter to Zakariasen, but suggested he work with the MVFD first.
Wakefield stopped that inquiry quickly. Wakefield explained that because the MVFD is a private entity -- it’s registered as a 501(c)3 -- and not a government agency, the department must only release certain documents. In his letter, Wakefield included the MVFD’s articles of incorporation, the by-laws and two years of tax returns, documents that federal rules mandate all nonprofits provide to all requesters.
“These forms contain all the financial details we are required to provide,” Wakefield wrote in the letter.
He also threatened to call the police on Zakariasen if he attempts to attend “closed meetings of the corporation” in the future.
But MVFD’s stance on the records conflicts with state public records law, which allows anyone to view pertinent records of a contractor performing duties on a government’s behalf.
“A public agency or independent public body corporate and politic shall not prevent the examination or copying of a public record by contracting with a nongovernmental body to perform any of its duties or functions,” Idaho Code mandates.
It’s an issue that’s come up as the state deals with poor management of several contracts, including a deal to manage prisons or the agreement for statewide Internet access at schools.
“The state’s public records law clearly states that no matter who holds the documents - government vendor or public agency - public records are always public,” Rebecca Boone, an Associated Press reporter, wrote earlier this year.
Celebrating Idaho’s public records law’s 25th anniversary, Attorney General Lawrence Wasden reflected on the code section regarding private contractors working for government.
“These provisions ensure two things: 1. Idaho's public records remain public; and 2. Government cannot contract away its obligations under the public records act,” Wasden wrote in March.
In Moscow, the situation remains cloudy.
“I don’t have an answer,” Wakefield said when asked if the arrangement could lead to the MVFD hiding some records.
Wakefield, who serves the MVFD pro bono and once worked among its ranks, admitted Moscow’s arrangement -- the city contracting with a private entity for emergency services -- is unique. The volunteers, more than 100 in all, decided to form a nonprofit a few years ago, Wakefield said, to provide better oversight of money and to allow more donations to come in.
Moscow City Attorney Rod Hall also noted the strangeness of the agreement between his employer and the private entity, but said the city would happily honor records requests for documents pertaining to Moscow’s interaction with the MVFD.
That’s another feature of the odd arrangement. The city, which will spend nearly $1 million on fire operations this year, employs five full-time workers and one part-time staffer to oversee fire agency operations. Those workers are subject to records requests as city employees, but not as private employees of the MVFD.
Zakariasen wasn’t thrilled when he received the MVFD’s denial letter. He told IdahoReporter.com the agency must turn over relevant records.
“Based off relevant sections in Idaho Code, the nature of the organization's administration, and the fact that their funding is significantly dependent on taxpayer funding from the city and county,as well as subsidies and grants from the State and federal government, I would have to say no, they cannot hide records from the public,” he told IdahoReporter.com in an email.
Zakariasen hasn’t said what his next steps will be in the tussle with the fire department.