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Residents call to oust Lanark fire department board

A group of Lanark Village residents are asking county officials to dismiss the St. James Lanark Village Volunteer Fire Department’s entire board of directors – which has been winnowed down to the fire chief, his sister and his girlfriend..

In a letter last week to county commissioners, Victoria Hart, chairwoman of a fledgling group of concerned citizens, wrote that the three board members, Fire Chief David Curry, Assistant Chief Michelle Lawson and Secretary-Treasurer Chasity “Nikki” Baker are all serving illegally due to conflicts of interest. 

“The chief and assistant chief are siblings; the secretary-treasurer is the significant other of the chief. They can not vote on issues in which they personally are invested or would benefit as firefighters,” Hart wrote.

“We need to remove them as board members and elect a new board more responsive to citizen concerns such as the 2019 audit and the questionable expenses of $35,000,” Hart wrote. “The fire department was also assessed over $15,000 in water bills due to nearly two million gallons of water allegedly coming from a broken pipe.”

Hart said this activist group, which is working to formalize itself with the state as a not-for-profit, began organizing at a public meeting in November, attended by about 50 people. At that meeting, seven individuals were elected to the board of directors, with Hart as president, Vicky McGuyer as secretary, Debi Jordan as public relations officer, along with four at-large members, Forest Presnell Jr., Nola Tolbert, Patricia Bludworth and Suzanne Zimmerman.

Since then, Hart says the group has been rebuffed by the three-person fire department board, which has refused to share publicly the contents of the department’s bylaws to enable a determination as to what rules are or are not being followed.

“The monthly public meetings are not conducted in Robert’s Rules of Order fashion. There is no agenda; the minutes are incorrect, vague, and incomplete,” Hart wrote in her letter. “There are discussions but no motions; the public is not encouraged to speak and their comments are not reflected in the minutes. 

“The board does not follow its own by-laws.  They are in violation of federal tax laws for non-profits and other financial procedures,” she wrote.

Revenue from the MSBUs (Municipal Service Benefit Units) paid by property owners in the fire district constitute nearly all the funding of the department. Hart said the county already has disbursed the MSBU monies from the first quarter of the fiscal year. “I think it’s ridiculous giving more of the MSBU funds,” she said.

The Times has tried repeatedly to reach all three members of the board, with calls either unanswered, or no replies when voicemail messages have been left.

Hart’s group is circulating a recall petition, both online and in person, in order to secure enough signatures to go to Circuit Judge Jonathan Sjostrom with a request to have the board members ousted. She said that based on its estimate of residents served by the volunteer fire department district, the group will need 160 signatures to have the judge weigh a motion to oust the board.

County commissioners have heard from Hart, and are awaiting a determination from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement whether a financial report from 2019, when an earlier administration ran the department, leads to probable cause for wrongdoing.

“It’s a total disaster mess,” said Bob Shafer, who resigned for health reasons from the fire department board after serving from March through Nov. 2021.

“We’re in crisis mode right now,” he said. “The sooner the big boys come in and see the problem the better.”

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Meet the Editor

David Adlerstein, The Apalachicola Times’ digital editor, started with the news outlet in January 2002 as a reporter.

Prior to then, David Adlerstein began as a newspaperman with a small Boston weekly, after graduating magna cum laude from Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. He later edited the weekly Bellville Times, and as business reporter for the daily Marion Star, both not far from his hometown of Columbus, Ohio.

In 1995, he moved to South Florida, and worked as a business reporter and editor of Medical Business newspaper. In Jan. 2002, he began with the Apalachicola Times, first as reporter and later as editor, and in Oct. 2020, also began editing the Port St. Joe Star.

Wendy Weitzel The Star Digital Editor

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