Tabernacle Committee Finally Gets TRS Roster

2018The township finally received the Tabernacle Rescue Squad (TRS) roster. It took a long time (years) for this to happen.

At the January 2, 2018 township meeting, the committee officially adopted the TRS roster, and the rosters of the fire company and the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT).

There are many reasons why the township needs current rosters of its emergency providers. For example, Tabernacle should know who it’s providing insurance to (workers compensation and general liability). It should know who has official access to the township-owned Emergency Services Building and fire station. It should know that the rosters in its Emergency Operations Plan (EOP) are current. These are just a few of the administrative reasons for the township to have current rosters.

The Tabernacle Fire Company #1 has been required to give its current roster to the township. Every time its roster changes, the fire company must provide an updated roster.

The TRS is not required to give its current roster to the township and has long resisted giving information to it through standard governmental channels. TRS is only required to give the township its annual Financial Statement. But even that requirement (as explained below) is hedged against transparency and in favor of  TRS secrecy. Officially, TRS insists that it’s a private organization and doesn’t have to provide information.

The TRS even rebuffed the mayor’s official request for its roster. At the December 14, 2015 township meeting, Mayor Steven Lee asked TRS President Jamie Wood for its roster. She said:

I don’t think that this is something as a member they would ever want out in public.

Nothing more was said or done about this.

Aside from Mayor Lee’s one request for the roster, the committee has long accommodated TRS’s secretiveness. As pointed out by TTJ many times before, the committee’s acceptance of TRS secrecy is inconsistent with the township’s official statement that there needs to be a professional relationship with all emergency service providers. Here’s what the township told the State when it dissolved the fire district:

…there is a need to centralize the delivery and management of all emergency services in order to promote the professional, efficient, cooperative and effective delivery of all emergency services in the township.

Despite this statement, the committee has let the TRS operate with minimal oversight and maximum independence. Even when the township has a strong public purpose in getting information from the TRS, the committee quietly goes along with the TRS’s desire for secrecy.

There are many recent examples of this. The most notorious is the committee’s acquiescence to “chalkboard presentations” from Chief George Jackson, to determine the township’s annual contribution to the TRS (see TTJ POST August 22, 2015). The chalkboard format allowed the committee to meet privately with the TRS without convening a quorum (which would require a public meeting) and without the release of actual documentation of TRS expenses.

The end result of this secret process, in addition to the undermining of open government, was the township’s overpayment of approximately $40,000 annually from 2013 to 2016. The actual amount of uncollected insurance billings was only about $30,000 annually. But the committee decided to pay TRS $70,000 annually during those years. This $120,000 overpayment allowed TRS to build surplus as the township’s surplus declined.

Then-Mayor Kim Brown justified the committee’s refusal to publicly examine TRS billing records on “fairness to the TRS.” Fairness to taxpayers, who overpaid $120,000, was not a concern.

We know if we take a document from them [TRS], and again, they’re a private non-profit 501C3, I believe they are, organization so they’re not subject to OPRA, so once we take that document it becomes an OPRA-able document and it’s not fair to the non-profit that isn’t OPRA-able for us to make them OPRA-able.

Another example of the committee’s cooperation with the TRS to hide information is its decision to allow TRS to submit its Financial Statement 12 months after the end of its financial year. The TRS closes its financial books in December. Like most taxpayers, it completes it’s tax filings the following April. Yet Tabernacle allows the TRS to submit its Financial Statement the following December. For example, the TRS closed its 2016 books on December 31, 2016. It completed its 2016 tax filings in April, 2017. But it doesn’t submit its 2016 Financial Statement to Tabernacle until December 2017. By then it’s a year late.

Yet another example of TRS secrecy was its agreement with Shamong to provide free ambulance services for Shamong residents using Tabernacle resources (see TTJ POSTS October 12, 2015 and November 1, 2015). The Shamong agreement was never discussed publicly with the committee. Administrator Cramer, who is supposed to be the township’s point man to the TRS, said he was unaware of it. The agreement is still in place.

Still another example of this secrecy is the private agreement that the township would not charge rent for the TRS’s use of the $4,000,000 Emergency Services Building. This agreement was recently revealed by Committeewoman Kim Brown (see TTJ POST September 11, 2017).

Current information, be it a roster, financial information or a proposal to work in Shamong, is essential for professional management. Without the public disclosure of current information, the committee is operating in the dark.

For each secret or less than transparent action, there was an open and businesslike way for the township to conduct the public’s business. But the committee has never dealt with the TRS in a professional, businesslike relationship. Committee members treat the TRS as if it was still our home-town troop “in the little firehouse on Hawkin[s] Road…that runs bingo games as a fund raiser.” That’s how the TRS, on its website, describes its early history.

Those days are long gone. TRS now has 75 total members. Its insurance billing revenues are $234,271. It operates out of the $4,000,000 Emergency Services Building and doesn’t pay rent. Its 2016 financial statement, the most recent available, shows its total operating revenues are $329,839. It’s rumored that its member compensation program pays at least $4,000 to $10,000 per active member.

Until the January 2, 2018 meeting, the committee still protected the TRS’s secrecy.

So why, after years of protecting TRS information, did its roster show up in public in Resolution 2018-31? Here are two answers. Answer #1 was given by the committee at the January 2, meeting.

Answer #1: The Burlington County Municipal Joint Insurance Fund (JIF) requires municipalities to have the rosters.

Tabernacle, like other townships in the county, is a member of the JIF. The JIF describes its function on its website:

Joint Insurance Funds are simply a form of shared services for New Jersey Public Entities that enables them to pool their resources to insure for property, liability, and workers compensation coverage.

At the January 2, 2018 meeting, resolutions adopting the TRS, CERT and TFC#1 rosters were presented. The resolutions also say that workers compensation and general liability coverage will be provided for people listed on the rosters.

During discussion, Deputy Mayor Steven Lee asked why the committee was adopting these resolutions now, when it had never adopted them in previous years.

Brian Monaghan, Tabernacle’s long-time risk manager, explained that it’s been the JIF’s standard practice to have the municipality hold the rosters in order for the JIF to extend coverage. I later confirmed with the JIF that this has been its standard practice for “many years.”

Administrator Doug Cramer added that “the genesis of this [practice] is the situation that occurred to the CERT team in Palmyra.” Although the JIF was unfamiliar with the Palmyra situation, I infer that a person allegedly on the Palmyra CERT was denied insurance coverage because they weren’t on an official roster. Tabernacle’s official recognition of the TRS, CERT and TFC#1 ostensibly solves this problem.

The logic and purpose for Tabernacle to have the rosters of its emergency service organizations in order to assure the insurance coverage of their members is obvious. It doesn’t take an expert to see this. Township residents like myself and Kathy Burger have commented many times to the committee that the township should have the rosters for insurance purposes.

Although it has been a long-standing JIF policy for municipalities to maintain the rosters, neither Brian Monaghan nor Administrator Doug Cramer raised this issue until the January 2, 2018 meeting. As Deputy Mayor Lee noticed, up to now, Tabernacle hasn’t followed long-standing JIF policy and commonsense practice, of having all emergency personnel rosters.

Answer #2: I sued the township for the rosters in the Emergency Operations Plan (EOP) and won.

I’ve long suspected that the TRS gave its roster to the township with the understanding that it would be placed in the EOP where they thought it would be hidden from the public.

An EOP is a plan that describes how municipalities and other entities like hospitals and universities, will respond to emergencies that threaten safety and security. The EOP provides a checklist that contains the actions that will be performed and the responsibilities of emergency service personnel. Personnel rosters are an integral part of the EOP.

It makes sense that parts of the EOP are protected from public disclosure. Executive Order 21 gives guidance about what’s protected and what isn’t.

Any government record where the inspection, examination or copying of that record would substantially interfere with the State’s ability to protect and defend the State and its citizens against acts of sabotage and terrorism, of which, if disclosed, would materially increase the risk or consequences of potential acts of sabotage or terrorism.

I suspected that the everybody in the township administration believed that EO 21 protected the rosters. TRS Chief George Jackson and TRS Captain Steve Cramer said as much when they told committee members that first responders and their families would be at risk if the rosters were made public.

The theory that disclosure of the TRS roster, or any other roster, would “materially increase the risk or consequences of sabotage and terrorism” is far-fetched.

Police and fire company rosters are already disclosed through OPRA. If their disclosure doesn’t raise sabotage and terrorism problems, then the release of any emergency service rosters wouldn’t raise those problems either.

Besides, how could the disclosure of the TRS roster affect homeland security when over 75% of TRS’s membership, including all of its officers, is already plastered over the internet and social media sites. Many of these Facebook postings even include pictures of the members, their friends and their families! There’s no governmental purpose in keeping the TRS roster a secret, when the TRS wants everyone to know who they are.

Because I thought homeland security was a bogus reason for protecting the TRS roster, in March 2017, I sent an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request to Township Clerk LaShawn Barber for the rosters of the following organizations:

  • Tabernacle Rescue Squad (TRS)
  • Tabernacle Fire Company #1 (TFC-1)
  • Community Emergency Response Team (CERT)
  • Tabernacle Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC)

I asked for these rosters as they were kept in the most current EOP and as they were kept elsewhere in Tabernacle’s files. For all requests, I said that I didn’t want the addresses or telephone numbers of the individuals named in the rosters.

Records Custodian Barber gave me three of the four rosters that were outside of the EOP (TFC#1, CERT and LEPC) but not the TRS roster. She explained that there was no TRS roster outside of the EOP.

She also denied my request for any rosters that were inside the EOP, explaining that the EOP was exempt from OPRA. Her denial relied on the sabotage and terrorism executive order, which, as I mention above, is far-fetched.

The Clerk’s release of rosters outside of the EOP, while protecting the same rosters inside the EOP, was absurd. How could the risk of sabotage and terrorism materially increase if rosters inside the EOP were protected but the same rosters outside the EOP were disclosed?

The inconsistency between disclosing rosters that were held outside of the EOP while protecting the same rosters that were contained inside the EOP surely was recognized. But the people who decided to protect the rosters weren’t too troubled by it.

Because the Clerk’s denial of my request made no sense, I filed an OPRA complaint in superior court against Tabernacle. My attorney sent a courtesy copy of the documents to the TRS so that it could defend its roster from disclosure. The TRS didn’t reply.

Here’s my complaint and supporting certification (EOP Complaint May 2017EOP Certification).

I thought my reasoning was pretty strong. I thought the township would provide the TRS roster without much fuss or delay. Instead, as with other OPRA complaints, the committee took a lot of time and spent a lot of money defending the indefensible.

There’s no way to know how much money the township spent because Township Attorney Peter Lange doesn’t itemize his bills (the State’s Comptroller’s guidelines say that all municipal attorneys should itemize their bills). My complaint hasn’t been completely settled yet.

The path to the township’s provision of the rosters was circuitous and slow. After I filed my complaint, the township then gave me a TRS roster, which it said was from the 2016 EOP. But it looks like it was the roster from the 2012 EOP (EOPs are revised and approved every four years). This roster lists 43 members.

The full title of the roster that the township clerk finally gave me is:

Organization and Resource Lists, Tabernacle Rescue Squad, INC, Members of the Tabernacle Rescue Squad 2011

In its lower lefthand corner, a note in small print says: “Revised: 01/2016.”2011

 

It’s unlikely that this “Revised 01/2016″ roster is the TRS roster from the 2016 EOP because it lists fewer members than Chief Jackson said there were. And President Jamie Wood, at the same meeting on December 14, 2015, said that TRS membership was increasing. Yet this roster shows that TRS membership decreased.

There’s such a huge inconsistency between Chief Jackson’s statement of TRS membership in December 2015 (51), the membership reported in the “Revised January 2016” roster (43) and the membership adopted in the 2018 resolution (75) that this couldn’t be an accurate roster from the 2016 EOP.

Here’s the chronology and the numbers:

  • December 2015: membership is increasing (President Wood)
  • December 2015: 51 members  (Chief Jackson)
  • January 2016: 43 members (2016 EOP roster)
  • January 2018: 75 members (Resolution 2018-10)

Clearly, something isn’t right. The “2016 EOP roster” that I was given looks more like a 2012 EOP roster that hadn’t been updated. That would be consistent with its title “Members of the Tabernacle Rescue Squad 2011.” And it’s low number of membership (43) fits with President Wood’s statement in December 2015 that membership was increasing and Chief Jackson’s statement at the same meeting that the TRS had 53 members.

Colonel Lowe freely acknowledged that the “2016 EOP roster” was outdated.

The sole exception to this [the review and approval of EOP’s on a constant basis] was the roster of the Tabernacle Rescue squad which resided in the current EOP [2016] but was outdated and available from the Office of the Township (emphasis added).

But if the “2016 EOP roster” is outdated, then two questions remain to be answered. First, Colonel Lowe says he deletes outdated documents from the EOP because keeping them can cause confusion in an emergency situation. Why is this roster, which dates back to 2011, the sole exception to this prudent rule?

Second, if this is an outdated 2016 EOP roster, where is the most current EOP roster? Colonel Lowe said that the EOP is a “living document” which is “reviewed and approved on a constant basis.” As the emergency operations coordinator he should have the most current TRS roster.

Ultimately, Colonel Lowe said that the TRS roster from the 2016 EOP is available from the Township; though Township Clerk Barber said that she didn’t have a TRS roster.

This inconsistent and murky story sort of came to a close with the committee’s adoption of the resolutions at its January 2, 2018 meeting. These resolutions publicly and officially recognize the rosters of the TRS, fire company and CERT. It’s about time that happened.

There are still some problems remaining with the township’s handling of rosters and its treatment of the TRS.

None of the roster resolutions require our emergency service organizations to provide current rosters as they are updated. Only the fire company, through its contract, is required to do this. Because current information is needed for professional management, all service organizations should be required to provide updated rosters as they change.

This should be easy to do. New records are always created when organizations add or subtract members. Service organizations should automatically send updated rosters to the township whenever membership changes occur. After all, it’s in their interest to make sure that their new members are covered by workers compensation and general liability insurance. And if membership decreases, the organization should have an interest in saving taxpayers the insurance costs that are no longer needed.

The TRS and the township should stop behaving as if the TRS is separate and independent of the township. It’s not. The TRS is fiscally dependent on Tabernacle because the committee allows it to keep all of the insurance billings (and get free rent, etc.), unlike the practice of other townships. TRS is also dependent on the committee’s designation of it as the official and sole provider of emergency services in Tabernacle.

I shouldn’t have had to sue the township to get a roster that it should’ve had in the first place. The TRS has long maneuvered the committee into preventing public recognition of its roster. Through my lawsuit, it’s now clear that the hiding of the TRS roster for all of these years violated JIF policy and jeopardized insurance coverage of emergency service members. TRS should be accountable for all of the costs of this lawsuit, not Tabernacle residents.