The Grand Bay Volunteer Fire District’s Board of Trustees could soon find itself once again tied up in litigation with one of its own members.
In 2013, the board challenged member Joe Dozier’s legitimacy as a board member through a preliminary injunction, and now Dozier is seeking reimbursement for his court costs.
Janie Sarver, a former board member and wife of then-Fire Chief Bill Sarver, filed the lawsuit on March 14, 2013.
Her claim questioned whether former Grand Bay volunteer firefighter Joe Dozier met the requirement of property ownership to serve on the board. Mobile County Probate Judge Don Davis was also named as a defendant in the original motion but was promptly dismissed.
Four days after the lawsuit was filed, Davis certified the election results and ordered the court costs of the proceedings be “taxes against the Grand Bay Fire District.”
In the preceding election, Dozier had run unopposed for a seat held by 25-year board member John Lansing, who apparently failed to register as a candidate before the deadline.
Dozier claims he saw a posting for the position “tucked behind an ATM machine” at a local pharmacy and registered with the probate court as a candidate.
A judge ruled Dozier could serve on the board during the course of the lawsuit, which continued for several months. Eventually Judge Rusty Johnston ruled in favor of Dozier, concluding that the law stipulates a trustee simply own property in the district, not “real” property.
Dozier proved his eligibility by providing the court with a 2010 bill of sale and a deed for a mobile home located on Hamilton Farm Road. Dozier has claimed the property as his primary residence.
According to Dozier, the district board members agreed at the time to pay for Saver’s court costs, which prompted him to formally request reimbursement for his legal costs a little more than a month ago.
“I feel like at the time I was a certified board member and so was Janie Sarver,” Dozier said. “You’re telling me it’s okay to pay for one and not the other? To me that’s favoritism.”
Dozier presented the board with a bill for legal services from attorney Jim Fernandez in the amount of $6,909 at the board’s May 15 meeting.
According to meeting minutes, Dozier threated to sue the board if they did not reimburse him for his court costs. The board then asked Dozier for a more detailed account of his court costs before proceeding.
Rebel Warbington, the board’s treasurer, said the district never agreed to reimburse those costs. He also said board attorney Anna Williams told him they wouldn’t be required to.
“We went to the probate court to question his eligibility to run for the board,” Warbington said. “How he got involved and how he acquired so many legal fees, we don’t know.”
Warbington said normally board members request reimbursement before money is spent. He also said he wasn’t sure how the district could “come up with the money to reimburse Dozier even if we wanted to.”
“We told him last time — if (a lawsuit) was his intention to go ahead and do it. We’ll cross that bridge when we get there,” Warbington said. “He made a motion to request reimbursement in front of the board and it died from lack of a second.”
At its most recent meeting, Warbington gave a financial report on the district’s multiple accounts. In the report he mentioned $204,729 in a savings account, as of May 2014 and $9,416 in a separate checking account.
The annual operating budget for the district is less than $130,000 and each month the district automatically transfers $3,500 to the Grand Bay Volunteer Fire Department for general expenses such as fuel and supplies.
The fire district was created in 1989, and since then, its funding has come from a $35 property tax for every livable structure within its 106-square-mile coverage area.
Dozier knows the money is tight at the district and told Lagniappe he “didn’t want to sue by no means because the court process costs a lot of money.”
“When I sue them, not only am I going to sue them for the money I’ve already spent, but I’m going to have to sue them for the money it’s going to cost to sue them,” Dozier said. “It would have been different if they were right, but they were wrong.”
Dozier said he’d likely request a jury trial if the situation were to move forward into litigation, but it’s still possible the board could pay Dozier without any further legal action.
At its June 19 meeting, the board members reviewed a second invoice of Dozier’s legal costs. Members of the board still claimed it wasn’t detailed enough and requested time to present it to Williams. Dozier said that was the only receipt his attorney would give him.
Later in the meeting, Lansing resigned his position as president after more than 25 years on the Grand Bay Fire District’s Board of Trustees.
He cited health complications for his resignation and thanked all of the firefighters for their service before officially stepping down.
Shawn Phelps, a former assistant chief, was appointed to fill Lansing’s vacancy on the board. Tony Baggett was elected to serve as the board’s president.
Fire Chief Mike Barron also resigned during an earlier meeting that day, and several firefighters in attendance voted to elect Mark Stewart as the department’s new chief.
Stewart is currently a fire service captain with the City of Mobile.