For the sake of the Ripon Area Fire District’s (RAFD) firefighters, when it comes to allegations heating up about the Ripon’s past fire chief or current board leadership, we all need to — using firefighting vernacular — cool it.

Just as we expect and receive professional service from those everyday heroes who stand by often at the least convenient times, ready to save our lives and property, so too do we need to assume that the volunteers who give of their time and judgement on the RAFD board are doing their level best to serve area residents.

The process of looking into past financial transactions, however it turns out, is proceeding, albeit slowly. But that’s as it should be when no less is at stake than peoples’ reputations, taxpayers’ money and, ultimately, public safety.

No one is alleging a misappropriation of RAFD funds or abuse of credit card privileges from former Fire Chief Tim Saul, who seemingly resigned out of the blue Dec. 9 after nearly a decade of service leading RAFD fire fighters.

Little is known, at least publicly, why Saul gave no notice before hanging up his helmet. Or why his resignation was followed within days by the retirement of Deputy Chief Mark Sabel and the resignation of Capt. Bryan Markel.

RAFD President Ellen Sorensen assured the public at the time that “the board is not aware of any wrongdoing.”

That remains the case.

But the public is aware that an RAFD charge card used during Saul’s tenure wracked up almost $8,000 in interest charges, late fees and overdue fees. And it can’t account for two years of charges made on that card.

Getting answers to such matters is not “chasing down worthless and meritless paper-pushing issues” as a letter read to the RAFD board May 2 alleges.

Taxpayers from the RAFD’s three jurisdictions are entitled to know how and why this has occurred.

Specifically, why are any payments for charges made on the card “off the books?”

Why were dollars that could have been spent on equipment or training instead paid to a credit card company for charges that did nothing to maximize the safety of RAFD residents?

How could such developments possibly have occurred when the RAFD was warned, as part of its 2020 and 2021 audits, that it needed stronger internal controls in its accounting systems?

The RAFD chief and the board to which he or she reports are stewards of taxpayers’ dollars. That makes them responsible to spend every dime wisely, to accrue sufficient value for their expenses and to guarantee that all charges are repaid on time so as to incur no penalties.

Only then can taxpayers be confident that the person hired to lead the heroes on the front lines is as adept at the scene of a fire as he or she is at overseeing operational control of the department.

In short, the board must be confident that the command structure is solid.

With Saul now retired from firefighting, the board responsibly is about to engage a firm to conduct a forensic audit of its books to identify any past financial irregularities, inefficiencies, vulnerabilities or malfeasance, willful or otherwise. That audit also will enable the board going forward to employ best practices to improve their role as the taxpayers’ fiduciaries.

The good news is that the RAFD will be stronger in the future for having gone through this process.

That bad news is that it likely will take awhile to complete, hopefully with Saul’s open communication and full cooperation.

But until then, the best way to serve the RAFD’s proud protectors is to dampen down the rhetoric and accusations.

Interim Fire Chief John Hollatz recently told the RAFD board that morale “has been on the up” and that staffing is stable within the department.

No surprise, there. Firefighters are stepping up to fulfill their critical roles irrespective of whatever background noise is taking place at the end of Aspen Street.

No need for griping. RAFD residents are fortunate to have dedicated professionals keeping them safe and responsible administrators exercising fiscal prudence.

All good.

— Tim Lyke

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