Pitkin County commissioners will hold a work session on Tuesday to discuss the county’s possible participation in an Aspen Fire Protection District pilot project that aims to test a high-tech system designed to provide early detection of wildfires.
The fire district issued a news release about the project on May 22 that listed the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office and the county’s telecommunications department as partners. The statement that the county was a participant was premature, according to Sheriff Joe DiSalvo and other county officials, and the fire district followed up with a second news release on May 26 to set the record straight.
DiSalvo said last week that the project may or may not have its merits, but that he is concerned not only that the county hadn’t signed off on its participation, but also that a private citizen made a $50,000 donation toward the pilot project. To him, private donations to government bodies raise ethical concerns, and he doesn’t want the public to think that his blessing was given to the initiative.
“The county has not decided to collaborate with the fire department on this,” DiSalvo said last week. “It’s not that I’m against the pilot project. I just don’t want the community to think that we take private dollars.”
The project needs Pitkin County’s assistance because it would involve the lease and use of county cell-tower repeater sites. DiSalvo said much more vetting of the details needs to happen and that the Board of County Commissioners will have the final say on whether to move forward.
“I don’t ever want to collaborate on something that involves private dollars,” he said. “It could put me in a bad spot. … Nothing is free. Everything has a debt attached to it.
“It might just be me that feels this way,” DiSalvo continued. “But I think the public might have an issue with this. It just doesn’t pass my smell test.”
Jake Andersen, the fire district’s deputy chief of operations and public information officer, said Wednesday that he felt terrible about the miscommunication and the premature release. He said it was never his intention to link the sheriff’s office’s involvement with a private donor.
“I respect DiSalvo’s position,” he said.
He pointed to his second “clarifying” release which states, “There is no financial partnership between the Pitkin County Sheriff's Office and the private donation that was made to fund this project. AFPD and PCSO will continue to work toward positive and collaborative partnerships wherever possible to serve and protect our community to the highest possible standard.
“We at AFPD respect that Sheriff DiSalvo is an elected official who oversees a law enforcement agency and as such he and the sheriff’s office choose not to accept donations from private parties. This is in order to avoid actual or perceived conflicts of interest. We at AFPD completely support this position and commend their continued drive toward setting the standard for ethical behavior in law enforcement and the tone of transparency and integrity that is embodied within this mindset.”
The state of Colorado has an Independent Ethics Commission that rules on concerns regarding government violations of state ethics laws. However, it has no jurisdiction over special taxing districts, such as the fire protection district. The commission is tasked with issues involving counties, municipalities and elected officials.
Dino Ioannides, the commission’s executive director, said to his knowledge there is no other commission or state statute governing private donations to special taxing districts. He said he could not offer a position on the gift from the private donor — listed in the May 22 release as “Red Mountain resident and wildland fire pioneer” Jerry Hosier — to the fire district.
The pilot project would be conducted by San Francisco-based Pano AI, described as a “wildfire technology company” in the initial release.
“This partnership aims to provide early automated wildfire detection by placing specialized cameras at specific vantage points,” the release says. “These specialized cameras coupled with Pano’s artificial intelligence and intuitive software technology provide near-instant detection, triangulation and communication of wildfire threats.”
Pano’s technology, the release adds, is designed “to automatically detect the first wisps of smoke and put real-time fire images in the hands of first responders and emergency personnel, all with the goal of detecting flare-ups earlier and enabling a faster response before they become large infernos.”
Aspen Fire Chief Rick Balentine said it is not uncommon for the district to accept private donations for equipment and other needs. He noted that in 2018, local businessman “Boogie” Weinglass covered the cost of a new fire truck specifically designed for use in wildland blazes.
“I don’t see this as an ethical question,” he said Wednesday. “The donation was for the greater good of the community.”
Valerie MacDonald, the county’s emergency manager who works within the sheriff’s office, said that by all accounts, the news release pointing to the county’s participation was premature. She said she was as surprised as anybody when she saw it, given there had been little formal discussion between county and fire district officials about the pilot project.
“That said, the sheriff’s office is open to exploring the technology,” MacDonald said. “The county needs to fully vet the proposal and the vendor and do our due diligence to ensure there is no downside risk to critical county infrastructure.”
And that vetting, she added, will occur at Tuesday’s BOCC work session, which has been set for 1 p.m.