Tabernacle To Bury Volunteer Fire Company

For the fifth time in the last six years Tabernacle’s committee is about to do another major makeover of emergency services. After months of secret planning by Mayor Kim Brown and Committeeman Sammy Moore, the committee is proposing to eliminate Tabernacle Fire Company #1 (TFC1). The committee will replace it with a township-run fire company.

The elimination of the TFC1 is the committee’s latest step to bring its independent fire service to heel, while the TRS roams free.

At the October 13, 2020 meeting, Mayor Brown and committee members Moore, Sunbury and McGinnis rammed through a draft ordinance 2020-4 and adopted it at first reading. Committeeman Barton opposed the ordinance. Second reading of the ordinance is scheduled for tonight’s public meeting. Mayor Kim Brown is forcing it through at maximum speed.

There was no customary first reading of the published ordinance. Instead, Mayor Brown hammered it out on papers unavailable to the public. Then she asked that it be introduced by title so it could be scheduled for second reading at the October 26, 2020 meeting. This means that not only didn’t the public get a chance to hear the committee deliberate about this new plan, but the public also never got a chance to sufficiently review the final draft ordinance. Committee members Moore, McGinnis and Sunbury think this is just fine.

Committeeman Barton, to his credit, did not agree. He offered thoughtful comments and asked that the committee move more deliberately. Readers will recall that the committee held multiple and lengthy public meetings when it discussed the contract with the TRS. Nothing like that is happening here.

Barton’s comments are as follows:

  • He said that publication of the finished ordinance at first reading would allow better public participation.
  • He also pointed out that provisions should be made to accommodate a larger public audience as happened for other similar ordinances that affected fire and EMS.
  • He was concerned that members of TFC1 might not volunteer for this new fire department and Tabernacle would have to hire a fire company.
  • He also raised concerns that members of TFC1 should have been involved in the process.

All of Committeeman Barton’s comments were ignored.

The steps to firing the TFC1 began publicly on September 9, 2019 when Mayor Joe Barton, Deputy Mayor Kim Brown and Committeeman Sammy Moore unexpectedly pushed to formally initiate the the township’s termination of TFC1’s contract. The issue wasn’t on the agenda and the reasons for it had never been discussed in public.

Committeeman Moore, the committee’s public safety liaison, explained that the committee screwed up the training program. “We’ve set up a lot of training … and it’s basically a flop.” He refused to go into any more detail. “To go into specific details…it’s long winded.”

The committee’s screw-up over training was a springboard to the formation of a subcommittee with unlimited authority to investigate fire. The subcommittee consisted of Mayor Brown and Committeeman Moore, who had stated their intentions to terminate TFC1’s contract.

Over the next months, the subcommittee gave no public updates. Former TFC1 Chief Andy Cunard reported numerous times that he hadn’t been contacted by them. Ms. Brown later commented that the committee was inactive.

Then, on September 28, 2020, after the committee returned from executive session, Sammy Moore read a statement to the effect that change was needed yet again. It was time to dump the TFC1.

This statement was bolstered by other statements from Committeeman Moore and Mayor Brown about the research they did, the interviews they conducted and the options they considered. If any of that was ever done, it was never discussed in public. No report of any kind has been issued. Perhaps they’ll offer a few crumbs of commentary at Monday night’s hearing. That’s too little and too late for effective public discourse.

The need for this change in fire organization is due to the committee’s screw-ups. It still hasn’t created the comprehensive and centralized organization that it committed to doing when it dissolved the fire district in 2014. That commitment was essential to getting the state’s permission to dissolve the fire district.

The committee’s failure to create a centralized and comprehensive administration is the problem; an independent fire company isn’t.

One current flash-point illustrates this. Mr. Sean Colton, a former TFC1 member, left the company a few years ago under bad circumstances. He has appeared at many committee meetings to air his grievances, as is his right, and continues to do so. Fire Chief Cunard responded once or twice as I recall.

I’m not taking sides. I’m not saying who is right or wrong. I don’t know what happened. I don’t know who is at fault or if anyone is at fault.

I do know that the committee does nothing as Mr. Colton speaks his mind. It didn’t direct Administrator  Cramer, the supposed fire contract manager, to look into this dispute. Nor did Administrator Cramer address it on his own. Maybe they’ve done nothing to gin up reasons against the TFC1. Regardless, with a disinterested committee and no effective township administrative structure to handle this problem, it’s still publicly festers.

That’s wrong. Mr. Colton, the TFC1 and the public deserve a fair process and finality. A pubic safety director (PSD), who administers fire and EMS, would be a township officer to handle this. But the committee, after months of pressure by the Tabernacle Rescue Squad, forced Tabernacle’s public safety director to resign.

The administrative vacuum caused by the PSD’s resignation, affects the delivery of all emergency services;  fire, rescue and EMS.

There are two main reasons why the committee has failed to establish a comprehensive and centralized control over emergency services. The first is that it’s bent towards the TRS. Although the committee officially regards fire and EMS as cooperative and co-equal, in practice, the committee has regarded the TRS as more equal than TFC1. Fire services has almost always been the committee’s direct target for change, as it is in Ordinance 2020-4.

The second reason is the committee’s belief that it can best solve problems through secret sub-committees, rather than deliberating in public. It’s as if they think they get smarter when they go behind closed doors or we’re too stupid to understand. Or, maybe they don’t want us to further expose their preference for the TRS.

The tell (the clue that reveals) about the committee’s current plan to fire TFC1 and create its own fire department is this: if it’s a good idea for the fire company to be publicly controlled it’s also a good idea for the TRS to be publicly controlled.

That, in essence, is what the prior Public Safety Director concluded. But he was unable to implement it because the TRS wouldn’t accept any control. The committee buckled to the TRS. It’s always this tail wagging the dog.

In the future, don’t be surprised to see the committee appoint Doug Cramer’s son, Stephen, to be the Fire Chief. I also wouldn’t be surprised to see an influx of TRS members running the new township fire company.

THE CONTINUING MYSTERY OF CFO RODNEY HAINES’S REIMBURSEMENT

The Committee’s reimbursement of $200 to Rodney Haines, its part-time Chief Financial Officer, remains a mystery because the committee is absolutely silent about it.

Mr. Haines is also the full-time CFO at Little Egg Harbor Township and his contract with LEHT calls it to pay his training and educational expenses.

At the last meeting, Administrator Doug Cramer explained that Tabernacle reimbursed Mr. Haines because Tabernacle’s policy is to pay for these expenses. Mr. Cramer didn’t say if he directed Mr. Haines to seek reimbursement from Little Egg Harbor Township.

Mr. Haines didn’t say if he sought reimbursement from Little Egg Harbor. But, according to the February 11, 2019, official Executive Session minutes, “Chief Financial Officer Haines spoke of having no issue with Township approving reimbursement expenses. This is legally permissible.” Could this advice be any more self-serving.

The legality of the reimbursement is not the question. The mystery is why our committee members have nothing to say about paying for some other township’s expenses.

No committee member publicly asked about Little Egg Harbor’s contract. No committee member showed any concern that Tabernacle is paying for Little Egg Harbor. None questioned Tabernacle’s policy or why it was applied here. They’ve been as silent as a grave. Is this due to a lack of interest; a lack of understanding; a backroom deal?

This is actually a simple issue. Egg Harbor Township contractually agreed to pay CFO Haines’s training expenses. As his full-time employer, it’s the primary beneficiary of CFO Haines’s continuing education. Tabernacle’s policy should yield to Little Egg Harbor’s contract. Little Egg Harbor should reimburse CFO Haines; not Tabernacle. Tabernacle should suspend and revise its reimbursement policy in situations like this.

It’s time for Tabernacle to stop serving its cronies and show responsible governance. Fat chance that will ever happen.