A motion allowing suspended Laurel Fork Fire Department volunteers Benton and Tammy McAlexander to return to the department failed by a 4-2 vote during the Carroll County Board of Supervisors’ May 14 meeting.
Laurel Fork District Supervisor Joshua Hendrick brought up the topic at the meeting. Back in 2009, the two were suspended from operating county equipment and being on county property, Hendrick said. Benton was the fire chief of the department at the time, while Tammy served as treasurer. A state police investigation ensued, and Hendrick asked County Administrator Gary Larrowe what police were investigating.
Larrowe said one of the issues was that county procurement regulations weren’t followed in the purchase of a fire truck from a vendor of which Benton McAlexander was an employee. Additionally, he said there had been letters and multiple meetings held in regards to not purchasing from that vendor because of the relationship.
“Laurel Fork Fire Department actually purchased a truck without a contract, without procurement, without going through the proper channels at that point,” Larrowe said. “And so that was the basis of any kind of suspension associated with that.”
But did the investigation by the state police result in any charges, Hendrick asked? Larrowe said there were no criminal charges. Though Hendrick didn’t specify any names, he said the county recently lifted a suspension of another individual in a similar circumstance.
Hendrick told The Carroll News he was referring to Roger Hawthorne, who was suspended from the Hillsville Volunteer Fire Department after originally being charged with felony embezzlement in October of 2008 after $50,000 of chamber funds came into question. Hawthorne pled guilty to an amended lesser count of petit larceny two months later. A sentence of 12 months in jail was suspended after he repaid $20,000 to the chamber and served 40 hours of community service. He was reinstated to the department at the start of this year, Hendrick said.
“That is the reason I wanted to put this on the agenda. There has been another individual within the county that had a suspension lifted. Situations were not identical, but yet similar. The only fair and consistent thing I think for the board to do is if one suspension was lifted, the other needs to be,” Hendrick said. “With a criminal investigation with no charges…I think the board needs to look at removing the suspension that is placed on Benton and Tammy McAlexander.”
Supervisor Phil McCraw asked if the McAlexanders were interested in getting back on the fire department. Hendrick said he hadn’t asked them that question, so he couldn’t answer it, but he said he did approach the two about the situation.
McCraw then asked if Hendrick had talked to Laurel Fork Fire Department Chief Doug Lyons to see what he thought of the situation. Hendrick said he has talked to Lyons and other Laurel Fork Rescue personnel. If a suspension is lifted, Hendrick said the Laurel Fork Fire Department would still have to vote the McAlexanders back into membership, even though they are lifetime members.
“My understanding is they have to reapply and be voted on by the membership in order to become active members again,” Hendrick said. “I don’t believe right now that we have guidelines that say if you have this and this, you cannot serve as a volunteer. There is nothing to exclude people that are in this situation, and if this is something that has happened multiple times in the county as far as a person receiving suspensions due to criminal investigations, we need to get that worked into a policy somehow that says when this comes up, this is what we do. I don’t know that it should be on the board of supervisors to determine every time it happens. Previously it was held by the EMS board that was dissolved.”
Board Chairman Sam Dickson said he didn’t remember the EMS board ever making decisions as far as suspending personnel. Hendrick said they didn’t, but their votes were based on suspensions made by the county administrator.
Supervisor David Hutchins asked if the McAlexanders live in Carroll County. Hendrick said that is irrelevant. Hutchins said he would take that as a no.
“No, they don’t. They live in Patrick County, two miles from Carroll, but it is irrelevant of where they live,” Hendrick said. “The whole basis of me putting it on the agenda was the fact that they had an investigation that turned up nothing, and in the community, I mean they had their names run through the mud. I don’t know that they even want to be back on the fire department. My guess is if I was them, I wouldn’t even want to be back on it, but just the fact that they still have a suspension when in my opinion nothing they’ve done should exclude them from volunteer service.”
Supervisor Bob Martin said he can remember one volunteer organization in the county that took on a major expansion without getting the proper permits. He said the building would not even pass code until the county straightened out the mess.
“And frankly, I just suppose that if we launched a major investigation we would have pulled a whole bunch of folks through the mud on that,” Martin said. “Frankly, I think the McAlexanders have been through the mud enough, and if they weren’t found guilty I move that we remove this suspension on them.”
Hendrick seconded the motion. Dickson said he remembered both cases. One was due to criminal charges, the other was due to not following county policy.
“And evidently the procurement was violated since as far as I understand the truck that was purchased cannot be used. It wasn’t built to the standards it has to be to be used as a fire truck, so evidently procurement wasn’t followed,” Dickson said. “The other case, the ex-member was criminal. He was tried and he made restitution of paying back what he was convicted of, so that cleared him. Now as far as clearing the county policy, I guess if they bought another fire truck that actually worked, maybe that procurement policy would go away. But it looks like to me it is two different things.”
Hendrick said he never claimed the McAlexanders did everything they were supposed to do. But he said if one volunteer member could be reinstated after a larceny conviction, he didn’t see why members that didn’t follow procurement couldn’t be reinstated.
“There were no charges,” Hendrick said. “I’m not saying they did everything they were supposed to, but did their actions warrant them being banned from volunteer actions altogether? I don’t believe it did.”
McCraw said he wasn’t on the board for either situation, but he may have voted differently than others at the time. Hutchins said he was on the board then, and he said multiple letters were sent out directing procurement to be followed.
“And they were blatantly disregarded,” Hutchins said. “And while there may not have been criminal action, until such time as the fire department comes to this board recommending some kind of reinstatement, my vote is no.”
Dickson, McCraw and Supervisor Tom Littrell also voted no, while Hendrick and Martin voted yes, causing the motion to fail by a 4-2 count.