SIOUX CITY | Woodbury County officials on Tuesday said they plan to form an Emergency Management Commission next month to comply with state rules on local oversight of emergency services. The existing Emergency Services Department could be split into two entities.
The decision to form the panel came after an animated discussion in which Emergency Services Director Gary Brown said he had been severely criticized on social media a week earlier. That's when board member Matthew Ung, of Sioux City, alerted the board that the state-required commission hadn't met for years.
"Our professional reputations have been compromised," Brown said of himself and the department's employees.
A 1981 county document established the commission with three members: a County Board member, the sheriff and a mayor from a city in the county. No one could explain last week why the meetings hadn't been held.
Several officials sparred Tuesday over who should have noticed the commission wasn't meeting. Brown said he shouldn't be the scapegoat, contending he got the brunt of the blame in Facebook comments and on KSCJ talk radio.
He said he had had a discussion in early 2013 with Sheriff Dave Drew on the need for the commission to meet. Drew, who took office that year, said he had no memory of that.
County Board member Larry Clausen, of Sioux City, said his fellow board members and mayors all should have known about the required meetings.
Sioux City Mayor Bob Scott later objected to Clausen's remark, pointing out that he attends 911 board meetings.
"I take it very seriously. Had I gotten a notice to attend one of these meetings, I would have made an effort to be there,” Scott said.
“I don’t want some state auditor coming back and saying, ‘As mayor, you should have known, and you didn’t perform your job correctly,'" he said. "When you show me a document signed in 1981, guess what? I wasn’t around even the first time (as mayor) in 1981. So after 33 years you might want to review your documents no matter who you are and make sure they’re still in compliance.”
County Board Chairman George Boykin, of Sioux City, eventually said it was time to move past the blame game and set up the commission.
Brown and Drew will compile a list of people who have agreed to serve. That step will likely be done before January. State rules say there can be more than three members, and Brown said there is value in including several mayors.
"I am very glad that you are enthused about moving ahead and putting us in compliance," Ung told Brown.
As meeting participants discussed how the commission may be set up, Brown said it would be helpful to remove the emergency management tasks from his department.
He noted that when he was hired 32 years ago, the work solely involved emergency services such as rescue, medical services and underwater recovery. However, management duties such as disaster prevention, warning systems and other responsibilities were added over time. That has strapped his department, Brown said.
Brown wants the split to take place.
"This is how it should have been structured all along," he said.
Splitting off the management duties could require the county to hire new employees, a cost that hasn't been calculated.
Brown currently supervises a staff of three full-time and two part-time workers and has a budget of $565,900.
The Emergency Management Commission will have to set a budget by Feb. 28. Any spending would start in the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.
Brown said public safety was never compromised during the meeting lapse. He said his department had secured $260 million in government funding over 28 years and that the money was audited during annual reviews of county departments by an outside accounting firm.
Brown also said the way the issue came up in the first place needs to be addressed. He said county officials should have aired their concerns as part of a scheduled agenda item, rather than using the public comment period at the end of the meeting, as Ung did.
Ung raised the topic at the Nov. 18 meeting, days after Drew sent an email to board members on the need for the commission to meet.
The board chairman sets the weekly agenda items. Ung, who took office earlier this month for a four-year term, said he doubted the issue would have been approved for the agenda.
"I knew it wouldn't have come up otherwise," Ung said.
Earlier this year, County Auditor Pat Gill used the public forum portion of meetings to raise transparency concerns about board decisions, such as courthouse security staffing.