KUNA — Kuna Rural Fire District’s former assistant chief filed a lawsuit against the district Monday, claiming he’d been removed from his position because he spoke against the district’s proposed levy.
The district hired Terry Gammel as an assistant chief in June 2015, according to the lawsuit’s complaint, filed in federal court, as initially reported by the Idaho Statesman. He was terminated from his position on April 17, the complaint reads.
In March 2018, the complaint claims, Perry Palmer, the chief of the Kuna Rural Fire District at the time, “discussed the idea of a tax levy to raise income for the district,” according to the complaint. A few months after that, the district formed a committee to review the tax levy, and Palmer asked Gammel to take part in those committee meetings.
Gammel had reservations, however, because of the way taxpayers were funding both the Kuna fire district’s emergency transport service, as well as the Ada County Paramedics. The fire district had introduced its own 911 transport for emergencies, yet residents were still paying taxes to the Ada County Paramedics, according to the complaint.
“Mr. Gammel believed that when asking District residents to increase taxes through a levy to provide (emergency medical services), the District should be very transparent in explaining that the residents were already paying taxes for ambulance services via an Ada County tax,” according to the complaint. “Additionally, if KRFD hadn’t taken over the ambulance service, Ada County would have been obligated (and willing) to provide those ambulance services under the current tax, without any increase. Further, Mr. Gammel felt that by committing to provide its own EMS services through the District, it took away scarce resources that were desperately needed for Fire Protection in order to keep the public safe.”
The Kuna Rural Fire District is the only agency in Ada County that provides its own emergency-specific 911 transport, according to Hadley Mayes, spokeswoman for Ada County Paramedics. She said Ada County Paramedics and the Kuna district provide emergency transport in Kuna; calls are distributed based on the availability of an ambulance. She was not sure how long that arrangement had been in place.
Gammel told the commissioners how he felt about being transparent with taxpayers, how they might be able to save money by simply relying on Ada County for 911 transport services, according to the lawsuit.
During those committee hearings, according to the lawsuit, Mike Smith, one of the fire district commissioners — who is listed as a defendant in the lawsuit — “made comments that were of concern to Mr. Gammel suggesting that the public knows what the public is told and that it was all smoke and mirrors in convincing the public to vote in favor of the levy.”
The former officer of administration for the district told Gammel mentioning his views on the lawsuit was “a sure way to get let go,” according to the complaint.
Phil Roberts, the district’s current assistant fire chief, said he was not able to comment on the lawsuit, and referred the Idaho Press to the district’s attorneys, whose office was closed Tuesday evening.
At some point, Gammel alleges, he stopped receiving calendar invites to the committee meetings. The committee voted in September 2018 to add the levy to the ballot. Two months after that, in November 2018, voters struck it down.
In April, Smith told Gammel the district “decided to ‘go another way’” with the assistant chief position and that his employment would end next week.’”
Gammel claims he’d received no warning prior to his termination. Palmer, the chief, told Gammel he had nothing to do with ending Gammel’s employment.
When Gammel asked M.G. “Bud” Beatty, chairman of the Kuna Rural Fire Protection District Board of Commissioners, about his termination, Beatty told him there would be a special meeting of the board on April 17, and declined to speak with him about it further, the lawsuit alleges.
“However, during the special meeting, no one from the public or department, much less Mr. Gammel himself, were permitted to offer comments or have questions answered regarding the motion to fire him,” according to the complaint. “In fact, when a department employee asked why Mr. Gammel was being fired, Chairman Beatty said that that question would not be addressed as it was not on the agenda.”
During the meeting, the board went into executive session, “to ‘hear complaints or charges brought against, a public … employee...,’” according to the complaint.
After returning from that executive session, the commissioners voted unanimously to relieve Gammel of his professional duties, according to the complaint.
“Mr. Gammel was not provided any pre-termination or post-termination process,” according to the complaint.
A public records request mentioned in the complaint later revealed that, on April 12 — the day after Smith told Gammel the district would relieve him of his position — Palmer, the current chief, received an email from Roberts, who had been chief of the Nampa Fire Department up until the first of that month. Roberts had attached his resume, a letter of recommendation, and a document listing his accomplishments over the last two years. According to the complaint, the email message included the phrase “thanks for your help in all this. I appreciate it more than you know.”
On May 1 — weeks after the board of commissioners voted to fire Gammel — Roberts was hired as assistant chief for the Kuna Rural Fire District.
“This is another public servant who was fired for attempting to stop public waste and corruption,” Jonathan Thorne, Gammel’s attorney, told the Idaho Press.
He said his office has represented other employees who had been fired in similar cases.
The complaint didn’t ask for a specific dollar amount, but did ask for multiple other things, including for a judge to award back pay, compensatory and punitive damages, and the cost of attorney fees.