Jefferson County's Emergency Management Authority may have violated the Open Meetings Act and has been spending almost $2 million in tax dollars every year for years without any formal bylaws governing how the organization is run.
We sent a Freedom of Information request to the EMA asking for a copy of their bylaws last Thursday, after we got a tip that those bylaws didn't exist.
Less than 24 hours later, the EMA sent out a notice that their bylaws committee would be meeting on Wednesday to write those bylaws.
The committee did meet on Wednesday and it will now be at least a couple of months before the EMA has any formal bylaws governing how it operates and spends about $1.7 million per year.
This, even though the EMA has been around for 63 years and in its current form since 1993.
When asked if he would call that lackluster oversight, Jefferson County Commissioner and EMA Council Vice Chairman Joe Knight said, "it's been...for the most part, the funds are spent on things that need to be spent."
Knight admitted today it appears the group has been violating the Open Meetings Act for years by not publishing notices before the council's annual meeting, and not keeping and publishing minutes of those meetings.
Knight said he wasn't aware they weren't following the rules of the Open Meetings Act and agreed that there should be written meeting minutes and documentation on how their money is spent.
Concerns about lax oversight of at the EMA surfaced in June after the county discovered a warehouse, leased by the EMA last fall, that was actually being used to house about 20 vintage fire trucks for the Southern Vintage Fire Apparatus Association.
That association is chaired by Mountain Brook Mayor Terry Oden, who is also the EMA council's chairman.
"At that time, we thought this was something that was to be done," Knight said. "At that time our attorneys were negotiating and thought they were negotiating a lease. Then it became apparent the lease had been signed prior to the council approving it or prior to the attorney working on it."
Oden's group paid the EMA $7,500 for the use of the space and has since removed the trucks. But Knight says the trucks took up more than half of the warehouse space for at least six months. In a rough estimate, taking up half the warehouse for six months should cost closer to $18,000.
"Do we go and sue these guys who are a bunch of really great guys?" Knight asked. "The members of this association are fireman or former fireman and I really think the $7,500 came out of their pockets. So do you go after them and sue them for what they owe? But as I understand, most of them, they didn't know what the deal was."
Knight did say he thought they had underpaid for the space.
Knight couldn't comment on what the warehouse is being used for now.
"I know there's still shelving that needs to be put in, there's stuff from Fairfield that needs to come over, but I don't think it's gonna be 100% utilized," Knight said.
Knight said the warehouse lease has a no sub-lease clause, which this arrangement seemed to violate.
On Tuesday, Jefferson County Commissioner David Carrington questioned allowing old antique fire trucks to be housed in the building.
"I'm very concerned that the citizens are being asked to pay 69,000 dollars a year when I'm told half to two thirds of the warehouse has individuals fire trucks in it," Carrington said.
The Jefferson County EMA is run by a council made up of mayors around Birmingham and one county commissioner.
"Do I think something has been done wrong? I don't know yet. We have to find out and we will shine the light of day on them." Carrington said.
On Tuesday Carrington and other commissioners objected to approving any grants or funding for EMA unless the EMA council approves it. Commissioners are concerned about transparency and accountability of tax dollars.
The Jefferson County EMA Council has another meeting scheduled next month.
We tried but were unable to reach Mayor Oden for reaction to our story.