The Sopris Sun

Carbondale fire board issues partial gag order

Applies to three of five members

By John Colson

Sopris Sun Correspondent

The elected leaders of Carbondale’s fire district have concluded that fire board members, individually, should not be talking with news reporters about fire district policy, and should leave media contacts up to the president and vice-president of the board.

That decision was made “six months ago” at a meeting of the board of directors of the Carbondale & Rural Fire Protection District, according to fire board president Gene Schilling.

It is a policy that he recently cited when criticizing another fire board member, Carl Smith, who was elected last year after a campaign in which he was critical of the way the district is being run.

Smith last month had spoken with reporters about the district’s ongoing search for a consulting firm to write up a new district master plan. Specifically, Smith had confirmed that he asked that the price tags associated with four proposals, from four different firms, be made public, and about his reasons for that position.

At the time of Smith’s comments, Schilling was out of town, meaning that under the board’s policy reporters should have spoken only with vice president Mike Kennedy, who concurred with Schilling in not making public the price tags associated with the master plan proposals.

The proposals have since been made public, including the price tags (see related story).

But Schilling, at a Jan. 28 meeting of the fire board where the proposals were discussed, reminded Smith of the board’s unanimous decision six months ago regarding media contacts and suggested that the policy must be followed.

Speaking to The Sopris Sun by phone on Wednesday, Schilling confirmed that the policy amounts to a decision to present only a “united front” concerning board policies, rather than allow differing viewpoints to be aired publicly.

“We, as a board, need to get together” in discussing district policy, Schilling said, adding that the policy is “just like here at the police department, where I am the one who talks to the media,” or Lt. Chris Wurtsmith when Shilling cannot be reached.

Schilling conceded that “it is a little bit different situation” when considering the case of publicly elected members of a special district board of directors, but added, “We, as a board, have decided to go that way” and follow the no-contact policy.

If a board member objects to a particular policy, Schilling continued, “They can discuss board business (with the media) if they want to, as an individual … but not as a board member,” although he admitted that the board has no method for punishing board members who violate the no-contact policy.

To illuminate his reasoning for the policy, Schilling said that during last year’s election, Smith had told reporters he wanted to “get rid of” the district’s “command trailer,” which is used as a command post during fire-fighting campaigns.

But Smith, Schilling maintained, did not have all the facts surrounding the cost and use of the command trailer. And when Schilling tried to correct what he said were inaccuracies contained in Smith’s arguments, “a lot of the information that I gave … got left out of the stories.

“You guys were backing Carl,” Schilling said referring to The Sopris Sun.

And, he added, “you guys, rather than taking the facts (and publishing them), were trying to make it what you wanted it to be,” accusing the paper of picking and choosing what it published to conform to Smith’s campaign statements.

In addition, Schilling said, “Right now, my issue is that there’s a lot of negative information getting out about the fire district,” although he declined to say exactly what specific information he was referring to.

Smith, at the Jan. 28 board meeting, conceded that he had talked with a reporter about his desire to post the master-plan proposals on the district’s website, but stated that he would abide by the no-contact policy.

“I understand it’s a process, and I raised the question, and I will raise questions, but I also live with the answer and support the answer,” he said at the meeting.

Schilling said at the Jan. 28 meeting, and reiterated in the interview with The Sopris Sun this week, that the no-contact policy could be reviewed at an upcoming board meeting, possibly on Feb. 11.