Commissioners hear response to charges

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
Marion County commissioners spent much of their Friday payday meeting listening to the county’s communications director respond to allegations of improprieties made against her earlier in the week.

By the end of the discussion-which included 40 minutes in executive session and about the same length of time in public session-at least one commissioner expressed his support for her work.

“I continue to have confidence in your ability to handle the job,” Commissioner Leroy Wetta told Michelle Abbott-Becker, director of Marion County Communications. “We have instructed Susan (Robson, county attorney) to look into some things, but I do not feel that there’s anything there. And if there is anything, it is nothing more than a misinterpretation.

“I feel confident that you can continue in your capacity.”

At Monday’s regular commission meeting, Abbott-Becker had been accused of nepotism, mismanagement and mishandling of funds by Ron Mueller, an Emergency Medical Services training officer and firefighter for Tampa, and a member of the communication department’s advisory board.

His allegations were described in detail, with background documents, in a bound booklet of about 50 pages.

Mueller was not present at Friday’s meeting.

On Friday, commissioners first called for an executive session, with Robson present, to discuss allegations that were of a more personal nature, including Mueller’s charges that Abbott-Becker was inappropriately involved at a bank robbery scene in Lincolnville earlier this year and used a sheriff’s patrol truck to attend a meeting of county fire chiefs.

Abbott-Becker is married to Marion County Sheriff Lee Becker.

When the public session resumed, Robson said she would ask the KBI’s investigator in charge that day to put into writing the nature of Abbott-Becker’s involvement at the scene.

“I think getting a letter from him would help shed some light on that issue-about what exactly he asked her to do,” Robson said.

The county attorney also said she would contact the county’s auditor about guidelines regarding the use of 911 funds since she was unfamiliar with them.

That said, the discussion moved to policy and procedure issues that commissioners felt were legitimate fodder for public discussion.

The first was Mueller’s objection to having to pay out of his own pocket for copies of a topical geographical study done for the communications department even though he is a member of the advisory board.

“He was given the option of having copies made if he chose to, and he made no attempt after he was told what the steps would need to be taken to get those copies-so it was not an issue anymore,” Abbott-Becker said.

She added that Mueller’s statement that the study was done without taking bids and had cost the county $600 was “confusing.”

Abbott-Becker said in the process of trying to work out communications problems in the Tampa area-which had been Mueller’s primary concern, too-she did ask for a topical geographical study to evaluate how well repeaters work with mobile and portable communications devices throughout the county because problems were also being reported in locations other than Tampa.

She said the $640 which the county paid was for site maps and for specifications for expanding existing equipment, not purchasing new equipment.

“Neither one of those (projects) meets the requirements of the bid process to my understanding, and I did those in the daily functions of my job,” Abbott-Becker said.

In response to Mueller’s charge that the advisory board, in violation of its bylaws, had not held an election of officers since it was established in January 2001, Abbott- Becker distributed copies of the minutes from a meeting held Jan. 22, 2002, which indicate that Mueller was reelected as the board’s member-at-large.

“There’s only a few positions open to consideration for a vote-a lot of those positions are based on your title that allow you to be on the board,” Abbott-Becker said.

“The meeting was held, the election was held-it’s documented,” she said.

Mueller also charged that Becker had falsely stated that the advisory board was mandated by statute to have at least 51 percent of its members come from law enforcement. He said he could not find such a mandate, and that communications directors in McPherson and Dickinson counties did not believe Abbott-Becker statement was correct.

At Friday’s meeting, Abbott-Becker said when the communications department was created in 2001 outside the authority of the sheriff’s office, the county had two choices. The first was to have a management agreement with the sheriff’s office.

“I, personally, did not feel that would be acceptable because (nepotism) was the reason the department was split in the first place,” Abbott-Becker said.

The other option was to form an advisory board, which was done.

She said the board could have been comprised entirely of law enforcement, but she followed the pattern of Harvey County and added representation from other groups-EMS, fire, a member at large, the Kansas Highway Patrol and a dispatcher.

“I felt this would be a well-rounded board and would give input from all sides,” she said. “I never had to have the extensive board that I did, but we felt like the input would be beneficial.”

As for the input Mueller had received from communications directors in Dickinson and McPherson counties, Abbott-Becker said: “He did do some checking, but he didn’t check with people who qualify for the same requirements that we do-not being under the authority of the sheriff anymore.”

Abbott-Becker said a systems auditor reviews the communications department every two years.

“She assured me that (law enforcement representation of at least 51 percent) has to be in place and that it’s correct,” Abbott-Becker said.

Asked about the need to address the broader communications concerns within the county, Abbott-Becker said Marion County is actually ahead of many Kansas counties in regard to two-way communications equipment. The primary problem is with hand-held radios.

“We’re ahead of the game because we broadcast out and have two-way communications,” she said. “(The problem with hand-helds) doesn’t alter patient care, but we want better than that for our system. We want to be able to update meds and not have (responders) run back to a car each time-especially when our responder’s safety may be at issue.”

That departments around the count operate on different frequencies doesn’t help the situation, she added.

“The north and the south county are split like the Mason-Dixon Line,” she said. “It’s right at 190th, basically. Everybody north is on one bandwidth and everybody south is on one bandwidth.

“It’s been a goal of (the advisory board) for a long time to get everybody on the same bandwidth because when you have mutual aid responses, you have people responding who can’t communicate with each other.”

In the meantime, Abbott-Becker said, her department has to act as a go-between-which increases the workload of her staff and the possibility of miscommunication.

“You probably all know when I say one thing and it’s repeated, it’s said just a little bit different, and when it’s repeated again, it’s said just a little bit different,” she said.

Fixing the problem will require a significant financial investment. Abbott-Becker said the various departments need to budget for some of the cost, but that 991 funding might be available for some aspects, too, because those guidelines are open to interpretation.

In other business, commissioners:

split a fuel bid between Cardie Oil, Inc., of Tampa and Cooperative Grain & Supply of Hillsboro.

Cardie Oil was low bidder for Area 1 (800 gallons at 91.47 cents a gallon) and Area 2 (2,150 gallons at 89.99 cents per gallon), and CG&S was the low bidder for Area 3 (1,800 gallons at 91 cents per gallon) and Area 4 (1,800 gallons at 91 cents per gallon.

heard that sales tax receipts for August totaled $36,503.40, compared with $42,090.69 for August 2001. For the year, receipts are $2,580.27 below the total at the same time a year ago.

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