In a series of public meetings this year, Ketchum Rural Fire Commissioner Earl Engelmann has been sharply critical of the performance of the Ketchum Fire Department.
In a meeting last week, Engelmann criticized the amount of vacation Ketchum firefighters take in July and August, two of the busiest months of the year for emergency calls.
“What it reflects to me is that the collective culture is not good,” Engelmann said. “I wouldn’t have it in a business that I ran. That is unacceptable behavior to me.”
What Engelmann has not told the public at these meetings is that he ran a business with Sun Valley Public Safety Director Walt Femling for two decades, until the corporation, called Rocky Mountain Corrections, was dissolved in 2017.
During the April 16 meeting, Engelmann joined his two fellow commissioners in voting to authorize the district’s attorney to begin drafting a new contract with the city of Sun Valley, which would end an agreement with Ketchum that began in the late 1950s. The Fire District’s contract with Sun Valley may be worth about $300,000 annually.
That contract will have to be approved by both the Fire District and the Sun Valley City Council at upcoming meetings. The next Fire District meeting will be held in mid-May.
Further, Engelmann said he favored Ketchum executing a contract for services with Sun Valley for fire and emergency medical services. That would dissolve the Ketchum Fire Department and have the Sun Valley Fire Department employ all the personnel to cover fire and EMS calls in Ketchum. Ketchum’s fire and emergency medical services’ budget is $2.1 million in fiscal 2019.
As public safety director, Femling oversees both the police and fire departments in the city of Sun Valley. Prior to his employment in Sun Valley, Femling served as the Blaine County sheriff for 24 years.
“We should go with Sun Valley’s proposal,” Engelmann said on April 16. “It’s going to take a lot of time for Ketchum to get up to speed. I don’t mind being the instigator. Have everybody work together in a contract under Sun Valley. I have a feeling it would work quite well.”
Scott Graf, a spokesman for the Idaho Attorney General’s Office, wrote in an email Tuesday that the prior business relationship between Femling and Engelmann doesn’t violate Idaho’s conflict-of-interest statutes.
State law defines conflict of interests, and focuses on official actions where “the effect of which would be to the private pecuniary benefit of the person or a member of the person’s household, or a business which the person or a member of the person’s household is associated.”
Because the company has been dissolved, it doesn’t amount to a legal conflict of interest, Graf wrote.
“It does not appear to constitute a conflict of interest, based simply on the conclusion of their business relationship several years ago,” Graf wrote.
On Monday, Fire District attorney Lee Ritzau declined to comment for this article.
Rocky Mountain Corrections formed in 1996 and was based in Ketchum, according to Idaho Secretary of State’s office records. Engelmann was listed as the company’s president throughout its lifespan; Femling was listed as a vice president initially and later as a director.
At its outset, the company’s purpose was to develop jails and other correctional facilities for county governments in Idaho using private investment financing. The governments would then make annual lease payments to Rocky Mountain Corrections, and own the facilities after a scheduled buy-back period, such as 30 years.
It was unclear if the company successfully developed any jails in Idaho. Neither Femling nor Engelmann returned multiple phone calls seeking comment for this story.
The company conducted studies on jail planning and corrections capacity for numerous counties in the last 20 years. It was involved in discussions or studies on proposed jails in Gem County in 2001, for a regional jail involving Camas, Gooding, Lincoln and Jerome counties in 2007, in Boise County and Power County in 2008, and in Gooding County in 2011, according to news reports and public records.
In an interview Thursday, Fire District Commissioner Jed Gray said he did not see a conflict of interest. He said Engelmann is the newest commissioner on the three-member board, and joined in the past year. Commissioner Chris Stephens is the third member.
Gray said he recruited Engelmann to join the board, and praised Engelmann’s knowledge of housing in Blaine County and business. Engelmann runs a construction company that focuses on new residential and commercial projects, as well as remodels and additions.
The Fire District’s commissioners are elected, similar to the Board of County Commissioners. They represent geographic parts of the district—Stephens in the north, Engelmann in the central region, and Gray in the southern part.
“I don’t see a conflict there,” Gray said. “I’ve known Walt for years. Earl built my house. In our small town, everybody knows everybody. It’s a thankless job and it’s unpaid.”
He said he wants to continue to press for a bond measure to fund a new fire station in Ketchum be placed before voters in November. He said he believes a property on Northwood Way owned by attorney Brian Barsotti is ideal, because it offers great access to Highway 75 and Saddle Road to quickly get to emergency calls throughout Ketchum, Sun Valley and the northern Wood River Valley.
The Ketchum City Council agreed to purchase the property earlier this year for an affordable-housing project, but backed off after its agreement resulted in a lawsuit.
“I can’t think of a better location,” Gray said. “I’m ready for the city of Ketchum to pull the trigger and make some decisions. They need to take action.”