Friday, February 3, 2012

Questions still linger at Sun Valley City Hall

Fire chief still on paid, administrative leave

Express Staff Writer

Jeff Carnes

While details about internal investigations at Sun Valley City Hall are still sparse, Mayor Dewayne Briscoe is moving ahead with city business and says he is striving for a sense of openness and normalcy.

Briscoe told the Idaho Mountain Express on Wednesday that an annual independent audit last year may have uncovered issues that require further review.

"The independent city auditors ... are also investigating financial and administrative issues in the city," he said in an email. "They discovered unacceptable findings last year and made requests that the city correct issues but were ignored by [former Mayor Wayne] Willich and [former City Administrator Sharon] Hammer. The same issues are now under investigation."

Willich said Thursday he is working with the auditors to complete the report.

"None of that material was ever corroborated," he said. "It is not complete."

He said he is working with the auditors because the period it covers, fiscal year 2011 ending Sept. 30, fell under his administration.

"I want to make sure the city gets a very accurate audit report," he said.

Jim Donoval, Hammer's attorney and husband, said that without knowing what findings Briscoe was referring to, he could not comment.

"Until Mayor Briscoe details what he's talking about, there's no way to respond to what he's saying," he said.

Briscoe declined to provide details but said the audit is on hold pending investigation by the attorney general's office and the Blaine County prosecutor's office for possible criminal conduct.

Hammer sued the city last November, alleging harassment of her while she was under contract with the city.

She dropped the suit last month. The city terminated her contract Jan. 19, with an offer of severance pay worth six months' base salary contingent upon her not suing the city in relation to her termination.

Hammer was hired in 2008 at a base annual salary of $110,000. Hammer's exact salary upon departure was not immediately provided by the city.

"Hammer, although terminated, is still subject to the investigation," Briscoe said.

Willich placed Hammer on administrative leave last fall, but returned her to active duty at the end of December. He later testified in court that Hammer did nothing to warrant continued leave.

Sun Valley Fire Department Chief Jeff Carnes said he was placed on paid leave by Willich on Dec. 20, though Willich declined to confirm that at the time. Carnes was back on the job beginning Jan. 3, but Briscoe placed him on leave again Jan. 5.

Carnes, who has been with the department for more than 35 years, said Wednesday that he doesn't know why he's been placed on leave.

His wife, Tina, an administrative assistant with the city, also is on paid leave, he said, and the couple's son is on administrative leave from his position as an on-call firefighter.

Ray Franco, the city's assistant fire chief, is serving as the acting fire chief, Briscoe said Wednesday.

Briscoe said the actions stem from an internal investigation conducted late last year.

"From that ... some people in the city were advised to be on paid administrative leave, which was not a disciplinary action, pending the results of the independent investigation," he said. "The results of that ... have been forwarded to the [prosecutor] for Blaine County."

Briscoe said the report has been sent to the Idaho attorney general's office, which is investigating the "entire situation as to the financial affairs and administrative affairs."

The city staffers on leave will remain so, he said, until a decision is made by the attorney general's office and the Blaine County prosecutor's office.

Bob Cooper, spokesman for Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, confirmed that Wasden's office has a report pertaining to the city of Sun Valley.

"We do have a report that [Blaine County Prosecuting Attorney] Jim Thomas asked us to take a look at," Cooper said Thursday. "We're helping with an investigation. When we're finished, we'll get it back to him."

He declined to comment on the nature of the report or why Thomas sent it to the attorney general. Thomas did not return a call by press time Thursday seeking comment.

Cooper said county prosecutors can ask the attorney general's office for help with investigations for a number of reasons, including a conflict of interest or a lack of resources, expertise on a particular issue or time.

In the meantime, Briscoe said, the Fire Department is functioning as usual.

"They have their chain of command set up. There is no reduction in service," he said. "I want to reassure the citizens their fire department is running as it always has, and will be available as quickly as it always has. We have full confidence in the Fire Department as we have in the past."

As for a replacement for Hammer, Briscoe said that the position might not be filled. He said it is not required under Idaho code because it is not a city officer position.

Instead, he said, he may hire an administrative assistant to the mayor.

"I've made extensive calls for the search and contacted a lot of people about interim help here at the city," he said. "I probably will be hiring someone soon."

Briscoe also said that at the request of city staff, he has begun regular meetings with them to hear their ideas and concerns.

"I listened to them and they gave me some great ideas how to work more efficiently and cooperatively," he said. "Hopefully, in the near future we can bring finality and closure to this whole episode."

Rebecca Meany:

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