Three board members left the Wildland Firefighter Foundation this month saying the charity hasn’t made the changes necessary after a controversy over the leadership of its founder and director, Vicki Minor.
The board members who resigned are Cheryl Molis of Boise, a retired Forest Service administrative manager and treasurer of the group; Dan Friend, former Eagle fire chief; and Boise attorney Steve Smith. They stepped down after Minor, who is beloved in the wildland firefighting community for her aid to the families of firefighters killed and injured in the line of duty, elevated her assistant to chief financial officer.
The three questioned the employee’s qualifications and independence from Minor and her son, Burk, who run the group that raises $2 million and distributes $400,000 to the families of firefighters.
“They want to run it like a family business, not a nonprofit,” said Molis.
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Minor praised all three and said their terms on the board expired. Minor took issue with Molis’ assessment: “It is a non-profit, it’s not a family business,” she said.
The Idaho Statesman reported in February that critics and former board members said the foundation had grown too fast and had too few controls in place to ensure proper spending. Families of some firefighters said they’d been treated poorly or forgotten.
An independent review conducted by Boise consultant Karyn Wood for the foundation’s board confirmed many of the shortcomings the Idaho Statesman reported in February. There was a lack of clear policies, little oversight on expenses, inadequate reporting on how the foundation gives money to survivors, and a lack of clarity about how the money it raised was spent.
The report outlined a series of recommendations for the board and Minor that called for more transparency, clearer policies, tighter financial controls and more accountability. It especially urged the board to play a stronger role in the governance and oversight of the organization.
Minor said at the time she would hire an independent chief financial officer to implement some of the financial controls. Instead she elevated Dina Pfeifer, who was hired in 2012 and who worked as operations manager.
The three board members objected to the promotion. Board chairman John Henshaw, a retired Forest Service manager from California, said he offered a compromise to approve the hiring on a trial basis. The board approved the compromise 9-3, and the three dissenters stepped down.
“She’s the heart and soul of this organization. She’s its energy,” Henshaw said of Minor. “She wanted to hire a candidate from within.”
Henshaw said the group has made “fundamental progress” since the report was released, but said more must be done.
“We do have to make the changes at some point,” Henshaw said. “We have to up our game on professionalism.”
One of the earlier criticisms was that Minor paid herself and her son excessive salaries. Minor told the Statesman that she and Burk Minor have annual salaries of $95,000, but that a human resources consultant said salaries for comparable positions would be $119,000. She said the group is working on programs that will improve services for wildland firefighters.
“We’re trying to broaden our role,” Henshaw said.
Decisions on spending remain in Minor’s hands, Molis said. Some changes have been made, former board member Friend said, but efforts to do more were blocked.
“They’ve had it as a family business for a while,” Friend said.