On Tuesday, the El Paso County Commissioners voted to remove the Office of Emergency Management from the authority of the El Paso County Sheriff's Department.
The decision won't be finalized until December when more planning is in place, but it means that the commissioners will supervise the staff and operations for an emergency response to a disaster. County spokesperson Dave Rose says that's not unusual. A recent statewide poll, he says, found that out of 38 Colorado counties only eight had their OEMs under their sheriff.
Rose also said the move had been considered for years. But given that Sheriff Terry Maketa is under investigation for alleged sexual impropriety with employees, favoritism, and possible financial mismanagement, it's hard to imagine that the move wasn't at least a little personal.
Maketa apparently thought so. His office issued the following statement:
Date: September 24, 2014 [7:00p.m.]
OEM Move by County about Money, not Safety
In “The Marks of a Leader”, by Dr. Robert C. Chandler Ph. D. and available on the FEMA website under their training section, he encapsulates many of the most desired traits for Emergency Managers, some of which are:
4) Able to Communicate
In seizing control of El Paso County’s Office of Emergency Management, the County Commissioners who voted to do so exhibit none of those traits, and did an extreme disservice to the citizens they purportedly serve. As examples:
Coordinated: By Colorado State Statute, the Sheriff is the Fire Warden in the county and the Commissioners cannot change that. By making this move, rather than enhancing coordination, they are fragmenting it, because that responsibility, along with Wild Land Fire response and arson investigation has to stay with the Sheriff’s Office. How many more layers of bureaucracy will now be created?
Decisive: In an emergency, seconds quite literally can mean the difference between life and death. Are the citizens now going to have to wait for the 5 commissioners to get together, form a quorum, follow Robert’s Rules of Order, discuss the issue, take breaks, and vote before something happens?
Experience: Commissioner Sallie Clark stated the county needs to take “control” of Emergency Management and bring it to a “higher stature.” She stated the Sheriff’s Office is good at emergency response, when time is of the essence, but communication and planning need to be improved. What experience does she or any of the Commissioners have in Emergency Management and communication during a crisis? Collectively, the staff of the Sheriff’s Office and the Emergency Services Division has decades of experience in planning for, responding to, and critiquing and correcting that response afterwards. Furthermore, Commissioner Clark stated on the record at the BOCC meeting yesterday that communication with the Emergency Services Division is good while Emergency Services Division Commander John Padgett was discussing the requests from the Commissioners that the Emergency Services Division fulfilled.
Ability to communicate: There was no notice given to the Sheriff’s Office about this resolution until Thursday, September 18th. There was no notice given to the community, no public discussion. The County Commissioners spent 4 hours talking about a campground that affects a couple of dozen people. They then gave the Sheriff’s Office Commander of Emergency Services 3 minutes to talk about a decision that affects every resident of the county, especially in a disaster.
When Sheriff Maketa was made aware of this resolution last Thursday, the same day the agenda was publicly distributed, he asked Commissioner Hisey in writing to specifically list the personnel and equipment the county planned to take from the Sheriff’s Office and has not received a response. Commissioner Amy Lathen stated that Sheriff Maketa had mentioned several times that the County could take the Emergency Services Division. What she conveniently didn’t say was the last time he stated this was in 2012 before the passage of 1A during budget hearings. During that time, he told the Commissioners the county needed to fund the operational requirements of the Emergency Services Division as the Sheriff’s Office could not strip other budgets further to support it. Why didn’t the commissioners make the decision to take it back then, in 2012, before the passage of 1A?
Responsible: Along those same lines, when accountability comes due, who will the citizens go to? Will they be forced to look at a group of politicians all pointing fingers at each other or at a single person, also elected and accountable, who has the ultimate responsibility? When there is a question during the crisis, to whom shall the boots on the ground go to? Which commissioner would they have go to for immediate answers?
Ultimately, this move is about money, not safety. There has been much ado made about nothing concerning the Sheriff’s Office finances. The Sheriff’s Office has asked the county to explain why $897,953.02 of 1A funds have not been appropriated to this restricted budget (OEM) and only has received a vague response that these funds are in the fund balance and “not always appropriated.” This is contrary to other appropriations to restricted business units. Why has the money not been appropriated to the 1A account, when the rest of the 1A revenue is there?
The Sheriff’s Office, with the taxpayer approved 1A money, has almost competed a new Emergency Management facility, with extensive capability to house Emergency Services personnel, to include the Wild Land Fire Crew, in addition to other OEM vehicles (HAZMAT, EOD, and all Emergency Response vehicles. What will now happen to that facility? The County has stated they will also unilaterally take that facility from the Sheriff’s Office. Sheriff’s Office employees have spent thousands of work-hours on the design and equipage of that facility in anticipation of better serving the citizens of the county.
The Sheriff’s Office has also used the hard-learned lessons of recent past as a guide when obtaining new equipment. With this move, that institutional memory of how and why certain items were obtained will be lost.
The timing of this resolution is also extremely suspect. Why the urgency and rush to complete this now? The Sheriff’s Office is about to undergo a transition and what is needed is stability, not uncertainty.
The citizens of this county have been through a lot on the past several years. They do not need to have their elected leaders bickering about something as serious as this. This move shows that the commissioners are more concerned about wresting control of operations, money, and shiny new equipment than public safety. The citizens deserve better.