Alva Review-Courier -

From flood to fire: Freedom town board tries to salve wounds, move forward

 

September 16, 2021



The board of trustees for the Town of Freedom met Wednesday, Sept. 8, in another contentious gathering.

The town's new lawyer, Drew Cunningham, was present at the meeting, along with trustees Kama Luddington and Matt Bixler. Town Clerk Cindy Reed and Fire Chief Pebbles Luddington were also at the table, and office manager Dawn Wares and Jennifer Firgard, the town's grant consultant, were present.

Once the Pledge of Allegiance and Lord's Prayer were recited, conflict was apparent with the meeting's first agenda item: whether to approve minutes of the acrimonious Aug. 11 meeting.

Trustee Luddington asked if that meeting's agenda item No. 3 could be struck – that item was for unscheduled public comments. The Aug. 11 meeting had a large number of unscheduled public comments; she suggested public comments don't belong in the actual meeting, and that the agenda item could be amended with a statement that the comments at that meeting could be viewed online on the newspaper's website (www.alvareviewcourier.com). Reed clarified that the minutes merely state who made a public comment along with a summary of the comment. Attorney Cunningham said he would have to look at the statute to see if specific language can be struck from past meeting minutes.

Trustee Luddington questioned two other items on the Aug. 11 minutes, specifically numbers 10 and 11. No. 10 included five sub-parts that she said in her recollection the board had voted on separately; Reed said that the board had voted to have the attorney draw up potential ordinances. (This agenda item was revisited in the Sept. 8 meeting; see below.)

Trustee Luddington also questioned the use of the word “forensic” on the Aug. 11 meeting's agenda item 11, saying she didn't think she used that word. Reed said Brenda Horn's title is forensic auditor, so that is why the word was used on that agenda item.

Luddington then moved to table the approval of the meeting minutes until the attorney finds out if the entire agenda item 3 (unscheduled public comments) could be struck from the record. Trustee Bixler countered that, suggesting the board just approve the minutes and move on. Trustee Luddington then moved to accept the meeting minutes, and the board voted to do so.

Waterlogged Customer Gets Relief

The board approved the purchase orders for the general and fire funds, then went on to hear department reports, which were brief.

On a bright note, one customer who received a whopping water bill after a bad leak will receive a break from the town on the bill.

Reed reported that a customer had had a large water leak on their site resulting in a water bill of about $700. That individual, she said, is on a fixed income, and always pays their bill on time in full. She asked if the town could do something to help them.

Bixler, estimating that's more than a 1,000% increase in their water bill, and asked how the leak hadn't been caught earlier. Reed said the leak began the day after the meters had been read, and that as soon as the individual noticed it, they called the town and had the water shut off. Maintenance Director Stuart Page then went out to the residence and fixed it in about an hour.

Bixler suggested that the town cut the bill by 50 percent and let the customer pay over six months with no interest. Bixler also recommended finding a way to catch such leaks sooner.

Fire Chief Delivers Heated Comments

Fire Chief Pebbles Luddington gave a report for the fire and ambulance departments. First she read aloud part of a letter she'd written to the board about a brouhaha that arose in town the week of the rodeo over her refusal to sign a form that would have allowed the Mercantile to open for business that week.

“The Freedom town board presented me with an Authority Having Jurisdiction Form (AHJ) to sign,” she read. “I made the decision to not sign the form and still stand behind that decision.”

Fire Chief Luddington noted that she has served the Freedom community on the volunteer ambulance service and fire department for 22 years, was elected ambulance director 14 years ago and fire chief seven years ago.

“As Freedom's fire chief, I have a duty to provide protection of life, property and the environment from the effects of fires, medical emergencies and hazards to the citizens. Every firefighter in the world is sworn to protect its community members,” she read.

The letter detailed why she was not comfortable signing the AHJ form.

“I was hand-delivered the AHJ contract at my place of business on Monday, Aug. 16, around 12:30 p.m. by board member Kama Luddington,” she read. “I reviewed the contract and was not comfortable signing off on the nine areas of the inspection.”

She wrote that she immediately contacted the Oklahoma State Fire Marshal's Office for guidance, and after speaking with them she informed Trustee Luddington that she wasn't comfortable signing it.

“I spent Monday and Tuesday on the phone trying to find someone qualified to sign the contract, knowing the Freedom Rodeo was that weekend and this business needed to be open for it,” she read.

On Wednesday, she wrote, she met with the business owner and Trustee Bixler. During the meeting she learned that the business was not yet ready for inspection anyway.

The AHJ form would have required Fire Chief Luddington to sign off on nine areas of inspection, none of which she, as a volunteer fire chief, has been trained to do.

“If I sign the AHJ contract, I will be the first one held liable for any property damage or loss of life that may stem from any of these nine boxes,” she wrote. “I am not comfortable signing this form even today.”

After calling several area towns that have used the form, she learned that one fire chief was being sued for having signed it and then having the building's roof collapse. Two other buildings authorized to be open using this form had experienced carbon monoxide leaks that, in one case, had resulted in harming the health of two employees and two first responders who had come to provide aide and did not realize they were dealing with a carbon monoxide leak. “This carbon monoxide poisoning could have cost four people their lives,” she wrote. “I am not willing to take this risk.”

She concluded, “As the fire chief of Freedom, I will not deviate from the codes and regulations that the Oklahoma State Fire Marshal's Office enforce, as they are set up to keep our citizens safe from harm. When we enter a business, we all assume it is safe for us and our families. These regulations are not set up to prohibit business, they were created for the safety of all. Making exceptions to these regulations can be devastating and can cause a death that is preventable.”

After concluding her remarks (a complete copy of her letter is on record at the town office), the fire chief spoke about a new program she hopes to establish in memory of her brother, who lost his life in a house fire July 29.

Fire Chief Luddington and her parents hope to put together a committee to install free smoke alarms in Freedom residences using a hoped-for award from the state fire marshal's office, which has $2 million in funds it can award to local fire departments for such programs.

Community members who would like the alarms installed would fill out forms. The alarms would last ten years and would be installed in compliance with manufacturing recommendations.

“We will be asking for supplies that are needed, like batteries. Any local businesses that would like to help donate some of that stuff, that would be amazing,” she said.

Trustee Bixler offered the town office as the place residents can call for more information.

Other Department Reports

Reed reported that Oklahoma Corporation Commission was in town the previous week and will send the town their final review within a couple weeks.

Reed said that the town's insurance has a program in which if the town has no claims during a year they would have a percentage of their premium returned. “This year, we will be getting $414 back from the liability protection plan, and in the spring we will get $423 back from property insurance because we didn't have any claims for 2019 and 2020,” she said. This program was begun last year.

Reed told the board she has sent out correspondence requesting that the trustees be more responsive to emails and texts. Trustee Luddington said she rarely uses her email account. Reed said the email gives her a record of when something was sent and what was communicated, and she asked that they check their email at least once a day.

Reed told the board she had picked up the town's information for next year's estimate of needs and last year's audit review. She said copies are in the town's office if anyone wants to see them. “Right now we won't have accurate, up-to-date financials because the meeting's for the 10th and not many people have paid yet,” she said.

Bixler noted that the recycle bin has been filled with metal. He also reported that a representative of AEC will come out to look at the town's generator to see what the cost of upgrading it would be.

2022 REAP Grant Projects Discussed

Consultant Jennifer Firgard attended the meeting to comment on possible future REAP grants. The deadline for REAP grants is Oct. 29. Firgard recommended the town apply for $65,000 to finish off the town's replacement of gas lines. An estimate from Jason Brinley, the engineer who has worked with the town on the CDBG grant that also went toward replacing the gas lines, put the projected cost at about $155,000. Between this REAP grant and another CDBG grant, the town could completely wrap up the rest of the project.

“It will finish updating your main gas line that feeds the town,” Firgard said. “It will completely up-date your system.”

And then the town could get on with other needed work, such as replacing the sewer lines, Reed said, noting the town has been working on the gas lines for a decade. CDBG grants open for application in January.

Other Board Business

The board voted to raise Maintenance Director Page's hourly rate by $1.50 along with daily time journaling. Trustee Luddington explained that she is asking for the daily time journaling because she doesn't understand everything he does, although she does agree with the hourly wage increase. Trustee Bixler noted that Page has been doing a good job.

The board tabled an item on discussion and possible action on a proposal from Northwest Electric for a generator order that would involve selling a current generator and a mower on Purple Wave. Bixler recommended taking no action because he is waiting on information from AEC.

The board also took no action on the five-part item involving potential ordinances, upon the recommendation of Attorney Cunningham, so that the attorney can gather more information on what other towns are doing in terms of code enforcement.

The five areas for which the attorney would draw up potential ordinances are a.) local code enforcement, b.) follow the state's AHJ form, c.) sub-contract consulting service for building inspections, d.) increase permit fees, and e.) increase inspection fees.

The board of trustees will next meet, briefly, in a special meeting on Monday, Sept. 20, at 6 p.m. to discuss/take action on approving and signing the Blue Mark gas pricing contract.

 

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