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Pair on Lealman fire board squabble about discussions

(ran West edition)

Fire commissioners began the new year the way they spent much of the old year: bickering.

The spat between Linda Campbell and John Frank became so intense at one point that chairwoman Becky Harriman banged her gavel loudly and complained about "yelling matches."

"Asking questions is fine," Harriman told the combatants. "You don't have to raise voices, come to blows."

The dispute, in which at one point Campbell and Frank faced off behind other commissioners' backs, began toward the end of Monday's workshop. Frank complained that he had repeatedly asked for several items to be placed on the agenda but was always ignored.

The items he wanted to discuss included the Lealman Fire District's budget, union negotiations, the lack of fire hydrants in the district and the contract with Kenneth City. Kenneth City, which has no fire department, pays Lealman to provide fire service.

Frank said board members also need to talk about stabilizing the area's tax base to make long-range planning easier. It's hard to plan, he has said, when repeated annexations have eroded the tax base.

Discussing such issues would make the meetings longer, but fire commissioners should be more concerned with doing their jobs than with the length of meetings, Frank said. He noted that since the board's leadership had changed after the last election, meetings had gotten shorter and there was less discussion among members.

Campbell said she had problems with discussing items "over and over and over." She also had an explanation for why meetings had been longer:

"We had a couple of commissioners that just wouldn't shut up. . . . Some of these issues . . . are things that have been gone over and over again."

She apparently was referring to Frank and former member Bill Adams, who lost his seat in the November election. The two often tangled with Campbell and former board chairman Mike Brophy, who also lost his seat in November.

Campbell said it was not the board's business to determine the budget. Lealman fire Chief Rick Graham prepares the budget, which the board votes on. Later, auditors make sure nothing is wrong with the budget, she said.

"I, for one, do not feel this is an issue this commission needs to get involved in," Campbell said.

After the meeting, Frank said auditors only make sure that no financial wrongdoing occurred. The auditors do not make policy decisions about how money should be spent. That's the commissioners' job, he said, one the board has consistently neglected.

At first, Campbell said she would not comment on the fire hydrant issue because providing the hydrants was a county or city responsibility. "You're talking now more law and government than the fire department," Campbell said. "We don't have anything to do with the government."

But later, Campbell asked Frank to bring documentation to back up some of his assertions about fees that St. Petersburg charges the unincorporated Lealman area and annexation overtures that city has made to property owners in the Feather Sound area. If Frank would do that, she said, the items might be discussed.