Based on my experiences, I believe that even amongst those who have served as fire chiefs or elected board members there are still some fundamental misconceptions or downright falsehoods about fire protection districts. So, what is a fire district?
In Missouri at least (although the basic statutory schemes for fire districts are very similar across the United States) a Fire Protection District is a specifically geographically delineated political subdivision created by a vote of its citizens under the laws of the State of Missouri. It serves only a handful of purposes; namely the prevention and/or mitigation of fire. This service can be expanded into the realm of other closely related functions such as rescue and hazardous materials response, or Emergency Medical Services (RSMO 321.010; 321.225).
What isn’t a Fire Protection district? It is not a rural fire association. It is not a municipal fire department. It is not the product nor subsidiary of any other government agency. A Fire Protection district is a standalone governmental entity. It is a legislature, and it is an executive, capable of enacting its own ordinances, utilizing eminent domain, collecting and spending tax dollars, and acting on the people’s behalf to provide the specific service of Fire Protection.
When a Fire Protection district holds a meeting, it is a meeting of the elected legislative body governing the Fire Protection district. It is a public meeting of the fire district legislature, not to be mistaken for a meeting of the public. For those of you who are fire board members, it is important for you to understand that you are the elected legislators governing this political subdivision—in other words like it or not (and most will not), once elected to a fire board you are a politician. Understanding the nature and underpinnings of a Fire Protection district is what helps you to recognize the necessity for the formalities that surround your processes and will keep you out of trouble. The applicability of the sunshine law to your work, the importance of posting meetings and conducting business in public, the statutory monetary obligations due to the fact that you are taxing your residents– these are all things that require you to act with a certain degree of officiousness, decorum, and formality. And, they are not optional due to the fact that fire boards, just like city councils, are official government actors, and part of the local government.
In upcoming blogs I will start to break down some of the specifics related to sunshine Law, taxation/budgeting, etc. In the meantime, take a minute to contemplate the concept of a fire board as a legislative body. I think you will be glad you did, as it might just change your perspective permanently.