Douglas County Commission: City of Lawrence plan to hire Fire Medical chief is not in ‘spirit of cooperation’

photo by: Mackenzie Clark

Douglas County Commissioners, from left, Nancy Thellman, Michelle Derusseau and Patrick Kelly discuss concerns about the direction the city of Lawrence is taking in hiring the next chief of Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical during the commission's meeting on Wednesday, March 6, 2019.

Douglas County commissioners voiced displeasure Wednesday about the City of Lawrence’s intent to recruit and hire the next chief of Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical with no input from county staff.

Talks continue between Douglas County and City of Lawrence staff revisiting the interlocal agreement that lays out the funding structure for the department. So it came as a surprise that the city was now planning to hire that department’s leader with no county representation, Commission Chair Michelle Derusseau said.

“I just find it very shortsighted, irresponsible and contrary to the spirit of cooperation that we’re sitting here working on this interlocal agreement and it sounds like (the city has) already made the decision,” Derusseau said. “… (The department provides) the services for all of the medical throughout the county, and I think it’s really important that we have somebody at the table that represents the people who live outside of the city of Lawrence.”

Interim County Administrator Sarah Plinsky said she saw a Friday article from the Journal-World about the city’s plans regarding hiring. She then reached out to Lawrence City Manager Tom Markus to ask to be involved in the interviews, noting that the former county administrator, Craig Weinaug, was in the final interview panel when previous chief Mark Bradford was hired.

The issue came up during the last few minutes of the Lawrence City Commission’s Tuesday meeting. In video from the meeting, Markus said the agreement makes it clear that LDCFM is a city department, and appointing its leader was under his authority.

Mayor Lisa Larsen said she could understand why the county would believe it should be involved, since its staff had been involved in past processes, but “that process is concerning to me because that’s not how the lines should be drawn as to who’s involved and how people get hired.”

“It’s kind of like the separation of church and state — I think that those lines get blurred when you start doing those sorts of things,” Markus said.

“But I think we have the perfect process set up by allowing public participation by anybody that wants to come and meet the finalists,” he said, referring to gatherings the city has held to allow the public to meet candidates prior to choosing both the Lawrence police chief and director of Parks and Recreation in 2017. The Journal-World reported that the city plans to introduce candidates for the LDCFM chief position in May.

Plinsky said that as talks continue, staff has begun to quantify what the county provides beyond just the 26.64 percent of the department’s budget that is spelled out in the current interlocal agreement, and the county actually covers closer to 30 percent of the department’s funding.

County Commission Vice Chair Patrick Kelly said after reviewing the agreement, he could understand Markus’ position, but that he doesn’t “necessarily think it’s good leadership.”

“If (the city) were going to take a different direction than we have in past practice in selecting a fire chief, that would have been a good discussion to have with all the partners,” Kelly said. “That’s cooperation — to me, that’s good leadership.”

Also, as the Journal-World has reported, Markus plans to retire sometime around June. Commissioner Nancy Thellman pointed out that there are “an awful lot of moving parts in this puzzle,” and that adds to the complicated negotiation of the interlocal agreement.

“I’m concerned about our ability to move forward in good faith, or at least in good spirit,” she said.

County commissioners asked Plinsky to draft a letter to send to the Lawrence City Commission to formally request that it reconsider that part of the hiring process. That will likely return to the county governing board at its March 13 meeting.

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photo by: Mackenzie Clark

With notes in hand, Keith Browning, Douglas County’s director of public works and county engineer, gives a presentation on possible projects to add accessible viewing areas to Wells Overlook Park, during the Douglas County Commission’s meeting on Wednesday, March 6, 2019.

County to move forward on Wells Overlook accessibility project

In other business, commissioners agreed to allow the public works department to move forward in seeking a grant to build a viewing platform at Wells Overlook Park that will be accessible by Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines.

Per staff recommendations, the commission picked the first option, which will add a platform near the northernmost curve on the park’s access drive, about 35 feet lower in elevation than the top of the hill where the park’s observation tower is located.

Keith Browning, director of public works and county engineer, told commissioners the plan also included an accessible picnic shelter. Roughly an acre of trees will need to be removed, and in order to prevent erosion on the steep slopes of the hill, that growth will be replaced with native prairie vegetation.

Browning doesn’t have a timeline for the project yet, but he said it would likely be a two- or three-year effort. A grant would reimburse the county for half the costs, and Browning gave the commission an estimate of $103,000 for the project.

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