Woodsdale FD dispute could end in court

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Despite the new Woodsdale Volunteer Fire Department Board of Directors being officially recognized by the Person County Board of Commissioners Monday, the debate over the rightful board of directors could end in court.

Discussion at the commissioners’ meeting Monday indicated that the commissioners and members of the old board are preparing for the question of who is the rightful board to govern over the department to be settled by a judge.

Before the commissioners got to issue of the fire department on Monday night’s agenda, several members of the public made informal comments about the issue.

Christina Royster made a complaint to the board regarding their handling of the situation.

“I have noticed in keeping up with this that several of the county employees who are part of the tax base are helping or providing services to the opposition of the old Woodsdale department by giving them advice and writing legal documents but I feel that makes a conflict of interest,” Royster said “If the county attorney is helping them with their issues, he can’t help me and I’m a taxpayer too. But the fire department is not a non-profit situation, it’s a business and we’re providing services. We don’t collect membership dues. I feel it’s wrong that the county attorney can raise legal matters for them but it would be a conflict of interest for him to do it for me.”

Royster asked that the commissioners, attorney and Emergency Services Director Doug Young remove themselves from the Woodsdale issue.

At their Oct. 21 meeting, the commissioners unanimously tabled the resolution that would recognize the new Woodsdale Volunteer Fire Department Board of Directors after president John Link requested that the new board receive more time before they were officially recognized. The commissioners also unanimously approved a resolution to instruct County Attorney Ron Aycock to contact the State Fire Marshal’s Office along with the county’s EMS staff to find out the requirements and procedures on how the county should proceed.

During the Oct. 21 meeting, Link said members of the newly-elected board had met with the members of the old board and reached a mutual agreement to work together to continue to provide services for the community.

Aycock said before the resolution passed that he does not represent, nor has he ever represented the corporation noting he represents Person County and his efforts, if authorized by the board, are to make sure the interests of the Board of Commissioners are carried out so that citizens in that area of the county received the services they expect.

When asked if members of the old board were considered members of the community, former board president Ronnie Womack said yes.

According to the department’s bylaws a member of the community must own land in or live in the department’s fire district.

Womack also said his board had changed the bylaws.

However, when asked later if members of the former board were members of the community by the bylaws’ definition Womack confirmed that a member of his board, Greg Freeman, was not a resident of Person County.

At Monday’s meeting, former fire chief and board member James Royster said there had been no community meeting to change the bylaws as Womack had previously stated.

New board president Laurie Dunn said the previous board had been apparently operating under bylaws that are not recognized by the state and that is causing confusion, but the new board is operating under the original bylaws that are on file with the Office of the State Fire Marshal.

Dunn said she was present at the meeting held Oct. 19 between members of the old and new boards before the Board of County Commissioners meeting that Link mentioned.

“It was described to me as an unofficial gathering, as they refused to meet with us on an official basis ‘on the advice of counsel,’” Dunn said via email. “I was definitely interested in going to sit down with them and hearing what they had to say. They did tell us that they had no intention of appearing at our next board meeting, again ‘on the advice of counsel.’”

She said that meeting ended with everyone agreeing to work together and when she asked how that would work if they weren’t going to come to the next meeting she was told not to worry about it.

Dunn said there is a gap forming between the boards publicly.

“It appears to me, that what they are saying publicly is in direct contradiction to what they are doing privately,” Dunn said via email. “The gap has been there from the beginning, and they have refused to meet with us all along.”

Dunn said the new board is ready to move on.

“The former board has violated their contract with the county and the state has effectively shut them down. The appeal is the only thing saving the ISO right now. It’s clear that the corporation was struggling under the previous management to the point of suffocation and the residents here will pay the price. Interestingly, most of the previous management doesn’t reside in this district... so their fire service is not in jeopardy. The current board of directors, elected on October 3, is here to help. The last thing I want to do is sit around and engage in a finger pointing marathon. What matters is that this community maintains service and protection. It seems to me that being embroiled in power struggles would amount to nothing more than wasting time and resources which will without a doubt negatively impact our community.”

Jack Nichols, a partner with Raleigh-based legal firm Nichols, Choi & Lee, PLLC, explained that his firm is being retained by members of the previous board after they assisted in filing the former board’s appeal with the Office of the State Fire Marshal.

“Our law firm is being retained by what we understand to be the valid Woodsdale Fire Department Board of Directors,” Nichols said. “We’ve been dealing with Greg Freeman and Mr. (Ronnie) Womack and we understand that they are the duly constituted members.”

Nichols, a former Wake County commissioner, said the case of who is the correct governing board may have to be taken to court, and advised that the commissioners hold on to the money that belongs to the Woodsdale Volunteer Fire Department until the correct board is identified.

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