County commissioner Terry Cutright, right, speaks during Thursday's meeting. Also pictured are commissioners Sam Nolte and Kristie Tenney.

County commissioner questions legality of Upshur County Firefighters Association

BUCKHANNON – The Upshur County Commission tabled an appointment to a newly formed committee seeking to address manpower issues in the county’s volunteer fire departments.

The Upshur County Firefighters Association voted to form a committee consisting of two private citizens, two business representatives, and two elected officials — one from the county commission and one from the city council — to discuss solutions to ‘critical’ ongoing issues within the Upshur County fire departments.  

However, during the April 21 Upshur County Commission meeting, Terry Cutright asked if the Upshur County Firefighters Association was legally formed. He cited several sections of West Virginia State Code 7-17-1, questioning whether the association was valid.

“It says here, ‘The county fire board shall establish the funding priorities for the fire departments forming the fire association and shall present a list of those priorities to the county commission,’ and nothing like that has been done,” Cutright said, before continuing to read from the code. “’However, no fire department or representative of a fire department who is a member of the fire board or fire association may apply for county funding from the county commission except as provided for in subsection seven, section ten of this article.”’

State code delineates between fire associations, which are created by fire departments, and fire boards, which are created by county commissions. According to the Upshur County Commission’s website, the Upshur County Fire Board consists of commissioner Kristie Tenney; firefighters Sidney Huffman (Selbyville), Rick Harlow (Adrian), Brian Elmore (Buckhannon); and community representatives Larry Alkire, Donna Matthews and Joe Gower.

The county firefighters association — a separate entity — is tackling the manpower issue. Upshur County Firefighters Association president John Roby said the organization has been around for more than three decades.

“The Upshur County Firefighters Association has been in existence for over 30 years,” Roby said. “The president and vice president of the association have been in contact with the commissioners over this and will be scheduling a meeting in the next week. The association meeting is the last Wednesday of every month at 7 p.m. at the Public Safety Complex, and we encourage the public to attend.”

At the meeting, Cutright also asked whether paid firefighters could serve on the fire board. He read a section of code that states “no member of the board may receive any compensation in connection with his services as a member,” and asked if that included paid firefighters.

Upshur County Prosecuting Attorney Bryan Hinkle, who attended Thursday’s meeting to consult with commissioners on the issue, said he was not sure but he thinks that is defined in the statute somewhere.

“Somebody needs to be here to address those questions,” Hinkle said. “Maybe they have some knowledge we don’t have, but obviously, the county commission would be involved with appointing members and you guys would know whether or not that was done or not, but I think we should have somebody here to answer these questions.”

“I think they should provide whatever governing documents they have,” the prosecuting attorney added. “Obviously, that shows they were constituted in a legal manner because that’s obviously the first question that we can answer is whether or not they’re even legally an entity.”

The commission unanimously passed a motion to table the appointment and ask a member of the association to attend a future meeting.

At its April 7 meeting, Buckhannon City Council appointed city recorder Randy Sanders to serve on the special committee of the Upshur County Firefighters Association studying manpower issues within the county fire departments.

The Upshur County Fire Board meets every third Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. in the county commission meeting room. The Upshur County Firefighters Association meets the last Wednesday of every month at 7 p.m. at the Public Safety Complex. Both meetings are open to the public.

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