CONGRATULATIONS to the Tabernacle Fire Company #1 for receiving a $254,800 grant from FEMA for the recruitment and retention of firefighters. Among other things, the two-year grant will enable TFC#1 to buy five sets of gear in the first year and two more sets in the second year. It will also pay for three firefighters to be stationed at the firehouse and run calls 7 AM to 5 PM Monday through Friday for two years with a stipend of $130 dollars per day per firefighter.
Three Committee Members Try To Terminate TFC#1 Contract At The September 9, 2019 Township Meeting
During the week of Patriot’s Day, when Shamong and other communities across America honored their first responders, Mayor Joe Barton, Deputy Mayor Kim Brown and Committeeman Sam Moore tried to send Tabernacle Fire Company #1 (TFC#1) a formal notice of the township’s intention to terminate its contract in 90 days. This gang of three saw the notice as the best way to engage TFC#1 in negotiations for a new contract.
It was obvious from Committeemen Lee’s and Yates’s comments that they had been kept in the dark about the termination plan. Here’s a summary of what they said. Mr. Lee:
I would like to know exactly why we want to re-open the contract. Unless there’s something specific we want to do, unless we have a clear understanding of what we want to accomplish, we don’t have to open the contract before we review it. We can review it first and identify those terms we want to change so that we and the fire company can get prepared to discuss the contract. Just opening the contract is a little shortsighted.
I have to agree with Steve, I have the same concerns. What I’d like to know is if we are currently having issues with the fire company. Is that the reason why you want to put them on a 90-day notice?
In response, Mayor Barton offered a flurry of three “reasons,” none of which explained why he was pushing for a notice of termination.
1. “We’re looking to deliver fire services better in the township.” It’s not surprising that delivering better services remains to be done. This committee has spent the last decade devising half-baked, back-room decisions about emergency services that have wasted huge amounts of time and money without establishing better services. Delivering a termination notice to the fire company surely won’t improve services or morale.
2. “We don’t have a fire truck on New Road [at the Emergency Services Building (ESB) as was promised long ago].” That’s true. But, as Emergency Management coordinator Bob Sunberry pointed out later in the meeting, the failure to place a truck at the ESB isn’t the fire company’s fault. The current problem is that a fire truck requires a ceiling mounted air hose and that hasn’t been installed yet.
When Arch Liston was Public Safety Director in 2018, he obtained Doug Cramer’s agreement to install the new air hose. Mr. Cramer, as administrator and as the manager of the TFC#1 and Tabernacle Rescue Squad (TRS), has always had the authority and responsibility to install the hose. But, as Mr. Sunberry pointed out, although the hose was purchased, it still hasn’t been installed.
Is it possible that Mr. Cramer’s resistance to installing the air hose is related to the fact that his son, Stephen Cramer, is the EMS captain in the TRS, and the TRS has long resisted the placement of a fire truck in the ESB?
3. “I think it also gives us an opportunity to do an inventory of what equipment we have in Tabernacle Township and what’s really required.” Arch Liston, the Public Safety Director that the committee hired and forced out in December 2018, already did that inventory.
Committeeman Moore, the committee’s official liaison to the TRS and TFC#1, is responsible to facilitate communication between the committee and the emergency service providers. Mr. Moore hasn’t regularly reported about emergency services at public meetings and, until this meeting, he hasn’t publicly spoken about any specific issues regarding the TFC#1 contract.
It was clear that he hadn’t spoken with Committeemen Lee or Yates about why the township needed a new contract with the TFC#1. But it was also clear that Mr. Moore had discussed this issue with Mayor Barton and Deputy Mayor Brown. All three of them were ready to launch a termination notice as soon as the meeting began and all were poised to squeeze TFC#1 into changing its contract.
Neither Barton, Brown nor Moore mentioned any specific problems with TFC#1 until Committeemen Lee and Yates asked about them. In response to their questions, Committeeman Moore mentioned training. “We’ve set up a lot of training … and it’s basically a flop” (emphasis added). He refused to go into any more detail. “To go into specific details…it’s long winded.” Long winded or not, the public has a strong interest in knowing about emergency service issues.
Here’s my translation of Committeeman Moore’s comment. In the township’s recent contract with the TRS, the committee gave TRS responsibility to provide rescue services and to provide training for all members of the TRS and the TFC#1. Rescue is typically a responsibility of the fire company. And, typically, fire company members are free to obtain their training through multiple accredited sources. Apparently, Chief Jackson is miffed that he isn’t the sole provider of rescue training. Chief Jackson attended the meeting, which is unusual.
Mr. Yates questioned Mr. Moore about the training and whether it justified termination of the contract. “So you’re saying there hasn’t been cooperation [regarding training]?”
Mr. Moore: “There hasn’t been, in my opinion as a committee person.”
Mr. Yates: “So we want to squeeze [TFC#1] because we don’t like what they’re doing?
Mr. Moore: “It’s not squeezing them. I just think the contract has to be looked at because there’s nothing in it that says extrication. We have it in the squad [contract] that [the TRS] is the lead.”
The TFC#1 has been a trusted emergency service provider since December 2014, when the fire district was dissolved. (Its predecessor, the Medford Farms Volunteer Fire Company, was also a trusted provider and served Tabernacle for decades until this committee dissolved the fire district and didn’t renew the MFVFC’s contract).
Responsible policy makers don’t jump to terminate contractual relationships with trusted providers. If there are problems, and it’s unclear whether there really are problems here, they amicably work through established channels to address them.
This committee is not a responsible policy maker. It terminated its relationships with the organizations (the fire district and MFVFC) that successfully provided and managed fire safety for decades (so the committee could plug a hole in its annual budget). It didn’t establish thoughtful policies or institutions to replace them. Not surprisingly, it’s still struggling to manage fire and EMS services. It’s knee-jerk reaction to resolve the training problem that it created is to proceed antagonistically against TFC#1 rather than to proceed cooperatively.
Over the past decade, while the committee was dismantling the policies and agencies that provided fire services, it enabled and presided over the long and steady increase of the TRS’s independence and authority. As the imbalance between EMS and fire has increased, it’s no surprise that conflicts between the TRS and TFC#1 continue and that the committee, again, seems to be taking the side of the the TRS.
This latest conflict about rescue training originates in the sweetheart contract that the committee made with the TRS in early 2019. The contract doesn’t contain the reforms needed to redress the imbalance between the TFC#1 and the TRS.
Committeeman Moore was the third vote to approve the contract. Mayor Barton thanked him profusely for his participation in it. As Mr. Moore explained at the September meeting, the contract makes the TRS the lead agency in providing rescue services and rescue training. There’s little question that the TRS pressured the committee to include these terms in the contract and the committee buckled to the TRS’s demands.
It makes little sense for TRS to be the sole provider of all rescue training. In general, training opportunities should be increased instead of limited. Making the TRS the sole provider for all rescue training narrows the choices.
The TRS does not need to be the center of the world in order for Tabernacle to have quality emergency services. The quality of training shouldn’t be an issue as long as it’s from accredited sources. After all, rescue training has to be similar throughout the county, if not the state, in order to promote cooperation between all service companies. Surely, TRS’s training can’t be substantially different from other accredited training.
In 2018, TFC#1 attended over 40 training sessions. On the first, second and fourth Thursday of every month, the TFC#1 holds training sessions, including rescue, at the fire house. Three members of our committee seem poised to conclude this is inadequate because it was not provided by the TRS. It looks like they want to remake the TFC#1 contract to require that all rescue training must be taken from the TRS. This sole-provider requirement would be yet another committee-sanctioned impediment to addressing conflicts between the TRS and the TFC#1.
Deputy Mayor Brown tried to explain that the termination notice was only meant to put pressure on the committee to renegotiate the contract quickly within the 90-day period. She and Mr. Moore both said that the negotiation with the TRS went on too long.
If Ms. Brown really wanted the committee to act quickly on the TFC#1 contract, she would’ve asked Mayor Barton to return to the practice of having committee meetings twice a month instead of meeting at the leisurely pace of once a month. Neither she nor Mr. Moore made that suggestion.
Ms. Brown also tried to save face by asking Township Attorney Peter Lange to insert language in the resolution that said that the committee was terminating the contract but not the relationship. Her statement is either a subterfuge or silliness. The contract establishes the relationship. If the committee begins the termination process, it also begins to change the relationship.
As an attorney, Mr. Lange recognized that the township has a contractual relationship with the TFC#1. He suggested that the resolution include language saying there was a good faith effort to renew the relationship and to re-hire the TFC#1. That’s double talk. A notice of termination is never taken as a demonstration of good faith. It’s always seen as a gun-to-the-head.
Tabernacle’s Emergency Management Coordinator is Bob Sunbury. He works very closely with the TRS and the TFC#1 and sized up the issue immediately. As Committee members Barton, Brown and Moore moved to terminate the contract, Mr. Sunbury spoke up from the audience to comment against the proposal. This wasn’t allowed because the meeting was a workshop meeting. At regular meetings, requests like his are always honored, even solicited.
Committeeman Yates then asked Mayor Barton to allow Mr. Sunbury to comment. Mr. Sunbury:
Not having an agreement within the 90-day period with the fire company, I believe creates unnecessary friction within emergency services such as we had during the negotiations with the rescue squad. I agree with Mr. Lee and Mr. Yates that it would be far more amicable and beneficial to the residents of this community to have discussions with the fire company, to have people sit down at the table and lay the foundation for a future contract or modify the existing contract to keep things amicable in the community. And …. the fire company has no culpability, as far as I understand, in why there isn’t a truck at the ESB (emphasis added).
Mr. Sunbury’s comments were spot on. Kudos to him for literally standing up and putting the brakes on the termination notice. The group of three (Barton, Brown and Moore) backed off of the termination after their idea was exposed as a ham-handed attempt to squeeze the fire company.
Mayor Barton then declared that a subcommittee would be formed. It consists of Deputy Mayor Brown who has always described herself as a passionate supporter of the TRS and Committeeman Moore who was the third vote to adopt the sweetheart contract with the TRS (to the detriment of Tabernacle taxpayers). Both members have already announced their preference to give TFC#1 a formal notice of termination. Their recommendations for changes that advantage the TRS would not be surprising.
The committee’s favoritism for the TRS over the fire company has been so persistent for so long that some committee members don’t seem to notice or care.
Another recent example makes the point. This past summer, Andy Cunard replaced Dave Smith as fire chief of the TFC#1. I presume that Doug Cramer informed committee members about this. But he never mentioned it in his Administrator’s report, which is on the agenda near the end of every township committee meeting. The committee, which surely knew of the change, didn’t make any public announcement either.
The committee gave the welcome of Chief Cunard and the thank you to Chief Smith less attention than it gives to the payment of any ordinary township bill, such as the bills for phone service, solid waste collection or legal invoices. Every bill is individually identified and placed on a list, which is made available for the public to see and comment on at township committee meetings. The change in fire chiefs went unacknowledged.
The next township meeting is Monday, September 23, 2019 at 7:30 PM at town hall.