St. George fire chief disputes Metro Councilman’s claims

St. George Fire Chief Jerry Tarleton disputed a Metro Councilman’s claim Thursday that his agency has been inappropriately involved in the campaign to form a new city of St. George, saying his department has remained steadfastly neutral in the debate.

“Our board has taken a position of no position on the city of St. George,” Tarleton said Thursday. “We don’t want to be a lightning rod.”

Councilman John Delgado led an effort at Wednesday’s council meeting to replace three of five St. George Fire District commissioners. The reason, he said, was because he feels the governing commission should prohibit its public facilities from being used on behalf of the campaign.

Tarleton said that as recently as last Tuesday he denied a request from St. George supporters to use a fire station as a site to gather signatures for the petition to put incorporation on the ballot.

He said he did allow some informational meetings regarding St. George to take place at a station last summer but noted that they frequently allow community groups to meet in their spaces. But he said as soon as the group started its petition drive, they “backed away” from further involvement.

“At that point it went beyond an informational issue,” Tarleton said.

Tarleton also said he has no right to prohibit St. George firefighters from using their personal time to campaign on the issue.

Dustin Yates, president of the St. George fire fighters’ union, is one of three chairmen for the St. George incorporation, along with Norman Browning and Joshua Hoffpauir.

Yates said the union itself is not involved in the incorporation effort and has recently tried to distance itself from the politics.

He said St. George city groups were previously allowed to meet in the union hall, but “once it became evident this was turning into an issue with negative overtones,” the building was no longer made available for their meetings.

Yates said in his personal time he’s an active advocate of the campaign, and there’s nothing in civil service regulations that prevents him from doing so.

“I know my position with my full-time job, and I know my position as a private citizen,” Yates said. “When I’m off duty I have the same rights as everyone else, with the exception of the political activity clause (governing civil service employees).”

State Examiner Robert Lawrence, whose office oversees the rules that govern civil service employees, said such employees are prohibited from publicly supporting or opposing candidates running for office. However, he said, they are free to take positions and campaign for referendum issues.

“If there’s a situation where there may be a tax referendum for revenues for the department, they can support or oppose those types of issues,” Lawrence said. “St. George is similar to that because it’s not a political issue where there is direct or even indirect support or opposition of a candidate.”

Yates said there’s a perception from detractors of the city effort that the incorporation is being pushed by the Fire District employees, but he said “that couldn’t be further from the truth.”

“We have 160 employees here, and there’s 9,000 or 10,000 signatures on the petition up to this point, so this has further reach than what the Fire Department can provide,” Yates said.

St. George organizers need to collect about 18,000 signatures from registered voters to bring the city referendum to a vote.

Delgado said he’s not convinced that the union and department are being as impartial as they say in the campaign to incorporate.

He said a petition drive was hosted Sept. 23 at 13646 Perkins Road, which is a St. George Fire District property that has been leased for years to the firefighter’s union. It is located directly adjacent to the Fire Station.

“The Fire Department is public property and the Fire Department members are public employees,” he said. “I think that’s a violation of the law.”

Kathleen Allen, a state ethics administrator, said in an email that the issue of St. George facilities being used for campaign purposes is not addressed by the Code of Governmental Ethics of by the Campaign Finance Disclosure Act.