By Derek Spellman
SENECA, Mo. — Two months after the controversial firing of the chief and the resignations of several high-ranking officers, four people are vying for one slot on the Seneca Area Fire Protection District’s board of directors.
The competition also is going on while the state attorney general’s office is reviewing a complaint against the board for alleged failure to follow the Sunshine Law.
Two of the four candidates — Derrick Brown and Manford Vangunda — currently are firefighters with the all-volunteer district. One, Valeria Cole, is the wife of a firefighter who left the department after the board fired Chief Michael Steele on Nov. 15. The other candidate, James A. Wilson Jr., was a lieutenant with the department who publicly resigned — and vowed to run for the board — during the same meeting at which Steele was fired.
The four are seeking to replace Dave Zumwalt, who did not file for re-election.
Several firefighters alleged that the board ousted the chief because he sought to hold it accountable to department policies and the state’s open-meetings law. The board has since named a new chief and lieutenants.
Last week, meanwhile, the state attorney general’s office confirmed that a complaint had been made in October 2008 against the district’s board for an alleged breach of the state Sunshine Law, which governs open records and open meetings.
“We are just reviewing the complaint right now to see if there is anything there,” said Travis Ford, a spokesman for Attorney General Chris Koster.
He termed the attorney general’s action “a review,” as opposed to an investigation, at this point. He said he could not comment further, or reveal either the nature of the complaint or the person who filed it.
Phone messages left last week for Zumwalt and board president Roy Lankford were not returned.
Board member Max Keller last week said he was not aware that a complaint had been filed.
When asked whether the board had followed the Sunshine Law, Keller repeatedly declined to comment. He acknowledged that he did not understand all aspects of the law, which he said “takes a Philadelphia lawyer” to fully grasp.
“If we did violate the Sunshine Law, it was unintentional,” he said.
Of the four people bidding to replace Zumwalt, three of them — Vangunda, Brown and Cole — said they are not choosing sides on the controversy.
Vangunda, 37, is a paramedic with the Newton County Ambulance District and a 12-year veteran of the fire district, with his membership dating back to when it was still part of the city of Seneca’s Fire Department. The fire district now responds within a rural area and is not associated with the city of Seneca.
Vangunda said he plans to steer a neutral course and is not promoting any one agenda or faction.
“My whole goal is just to protect the interests of the members of the community,” he said.
Brown, 28, has been a firefighter with the district for five years and runs a lawn-care business. He said that if elected, he would like to “keep everything in the right direction” by keeping the equipment up to date, and heighten public awareness about the district and what it is doing.
Brown served one term as a commissioner with the Seneca Special Road District before losing his re-election bid in April 2008.
Brown was serving on the road district commission when both a former employee, Crystal R. Chew, and the former presiding road district commissioner, Jordan A. Wilson, were accused of embezzling more than $27,000. Chew and Wilson face criminal charges in connection with those allegations.
Brown said he had erred in placing too much trust in Wilson and not “double-checking” things.
Cole, 38, is an assistant manager at the Dairy Queen in Seneca and a member of the Ladies Auxiliary for the Seneca Area Fire Protection District. Her husband, Craig Cole, was a firefighter with the department until after Steele was fired.
“I am just hoping to gain the trust of the taxpayers,” Cole said.
If elected, she said, she would want to ensure that the board follows the state Sunshine Law and is held accountable. She also said she wants the public to be more deeply engaged and to attract more people to meetings.
Wilson, 40, works for the Missouri Department of Transportation and was a firefighter with the district for almost 13 years before leaving last year.
“I just don’t feel like they (the people in the district) are being represented like they should be anymore,” Wilson said in a phone interview last week.
Wilson said that if elected, he would ensure that a regular maintenance log is kept so it is always known what repairs need to be done on the department’s different vehicles, when repairs have been done and by whom.
“That’s my main concern,” he said.
By the numbers
The election will take place April 7. The term for a seat on the Seneca Area Fire Protection District board is six years.
By Derek Spellman