Lois Henry

Tuesday, Apr 24 2012 10:25 PM

Kern County Fire rolls back the chow wagon

By Lois Henry

Relay for Life participants may have to brown bag it this year.

The Kern County Fire Department, with newfound zeal for adhering to policies disallowing private use of publicly owned equipment, notified the American Cancer Society late last week that it may not bring its mobile kitchen to the event.

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That allowed about three weeks' scramble time for ACS organizers to come up with a Plan B for the May 5 relay.

A cancer society spokeswoman said they were still talking with the Fire Department Tuesday and hoped to work something out.

"We can only control as much chaos as we can," she said.

The cancer society's website shows they expect more than 6,500 participants this year.

That's a lot of mouths to feed without a kitchen that organizers had no idea would be pulled out from under them with just three weeks' notice.

Whatever you think of taxpayer funded equipment being used to bolster any non-profit's cause (and I'm not crazy about it), three weeks notice is, in a word, un cool.

For more than 10 years, firefighters have volunteered their time and used donated food to whip up thousands of hot meals in the department's mobile kitchen for relay teams, volunteers and well-wishers.

"No taxpayer funds were ever expended," Fire Chief Brian Marshall said on Tuesday. "But we did use government property. We want to support the community but we need to do it without violating county policy."

He said the department has participated in numerous non-profit events over the years in similar ways.

"Relay for Life was the biggest."

I asked if pulling back the kitchen was a direct outgrowth of last year's ruckus involving former Chief Nick Dunn and my subsequent stories on how the department routinely allowed employees to borrow county equipment for personal use.

Yes, he said, this was "an extension of the county looking at its policies."

For those of you who don't recall, Dunn took a sudden retirement last November, citing health reasons.

However, I had learned the Sheriff's Department had investigated him last summer and forwarded recommendations for charges of embezzlement to the District Attorney's office.

The investigation involved allegations that Dunn regularly used county gas pumps for personal cars and had used county equipment for family functions.

The DA declined to prosecute for lack of evidence and the State Attorney General's office concurred.

But Dunn was also under an administrative investigation by the County Administrative Office when he retired.

Dunn's issues, though, were just the tip of the iceberg.

I also found out the department had, for decades, allowed employees to borrow county equipment on a "loan slip" basis. No records were ever saved, of course, so we don't really know who was borrowing what.

Needless to say, the Board of Supervisors wasn't pleased and had County Administrative Officer John Nilon shot a directive to the Fire Department telling them, essentially, to knock it off.

"We don't loan anything out at all anymore," Chief Marshall said of personal use.

But non-profit, charity events Relay for Life aren't personal use.

Marshall agreed but it still has nothing to do with the department's mission of fire prevention and protection, he said.

That's what taxpayers pay firefighters to do. That's what the mobile kitchen was purchased to support.

"We're working on what we can do," he said. "But which events do you do? And which do you turn down?"

Providing their giant flag for military or law enforcement funerals on request, he said, would likely still be considered OK. But he's looking at everything.

County Counsel Theresa Goldner praised Marshall for being cautious and thoughtful in his approach to this ticklish issue.

In fact, whether "community involvement" is within his department's mission is one of several legal questions that case law says must be answered on this issue.

It all boils down to whether the use of public equipment is a gift of public funds -- a big no-no.

"The tipping point is whether this is for public or private purpose," Goldner said.

Cancer research? Goldner and I both agreed that was public.

"But then you have to determine whether the use is in the jurisdiction (mission) of the agency," she added.

OK, maybe not for the fire department, but you could argue it's a general part of the mission of Kern County.

"The Board of Supervisors has the absolute right to make those determinations if a citizen made such a request," Goldner said. "And the good news for Relay for Life is the concept of public purpose is liberally construed."

That may be the best way out for Relay this year. But either way, leaving them high and dry at the last minute just isn't right.

That said, I would advocate against the county establishing a case-by-case system of deciding which charities can use public equipment. There are too many, we don't have enough resources and the outcome would always be unfair to someone.

It's time to close the door on anything except the strictly public use of public equipment.

Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lois Henry, not The Bakersfield Californian. Her column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Comment at http://www.bakersfield.com, call her at 395-7373 or e-mail lhenry@bakersfield.com

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