The final 2014 township meeting was short but eventful.
1. No Action On Coordination of Emergency Services.
Committee members didn’t touch the unfinished business of establishing centralized management of rescue and fire services, which they call their “Community Service Approach.” Over the past year, committee members spent a lot of time and money making big changes to fire services. They dissolved the Fire District, fired the old volunteer fire company and contracted with a new fire company, Tabernacle Fire Company #1. But, at the last minute, just before they were about to vote, Committee members removed the Tabernacle Rescue Squad from the Community Service plan.
Residents continue to wait for the Committee to bring about the coordination of all emergency services as they planned.
2. The Fire Chief’s Report.
When the Township Committee dissolved the Fire District on December 8, 2104, it took on the responsibility to oversee fire services. Although the Committee says it thoroughly studied fire services, at almost every turn, Committee members show that they didn’t do their homework. They look very unprepared.
Consider the Fire Chief’s Report. The Report is a management tool which has three basic purposes. First, it measures the basic performance of the fire company. It reports the number of fire calls, the average number of firefighters who respond and the average response time. Obviously, the Township and the public should know how the fire company is performing. It allows us to recognize when they excel and where improvement is needed.
Second, the Report keeps us up-to-date on routine and on-going matters. For example, it alerts us to unscheduled repairs, advises of progress on scheduled maintenance, training drills, on-going classes and fire prevention programs.
Third, the Report keeps us informed about special or unique events, such as the response to an extraordinary service call, a serious injury, a discussion about a new truck, special training drills, new regulatory requirements or a fund raiser.
When the Fire District managed the volunteer fire company, it was standard practice for the Chief to report at every monthly public meeting. The Commissioners, all of whom were firefighters or had experience with fire fighting, knew what was required to provide fire services and used the Chief’s Report as a tool to monitor fire services. More importantly, they recognized that the public presentation of the Chief’s Report educated the public about fire safety and how fire services are provided. The Commissioners routinely answered public questions without time limits so that the public understood the issues.
Township Committee members don’t have firefighting experience and don’t know what is required to provide fire services. Given their inexperience, I would have expected them to see the value of the Chief’s Report for their own education and for the education of the public.
Unfortunately, this Committee does not see any value in a regular Chief’s Report. Instead, they don’t really care to know and they want to do crisis management. As Committeeman Rick Franzen said:
…it doesn’t really matter to me, I think we get stuff from Corky Lowe [Emergency Management Coordinator] to come when there’s an issue or he wants, he feels the need to update us. I would see a similar thing happening with the fire company if there’s a need to update us…unless there’s a crisis that we’re dealing with, my feeling is well come when you need to come and we want to hear some stuff. [I] don’t see this as a scheduled event (see December 29, 2014 video at 13:12-14:00).
Committeeman Stephen Lee said “If we want him [the Fire Chief] to come he’ll come… if there’s an issue, that’s right.”
The other Committee members didn’t comment.
3. The Committee’s “New” Approach to Answering Public Comment.
At the December 29 meeting, Committeeman Stephen Lee commented strongly that members of the public should address their questions and comments to the Committee, not to township staff (see December 29, 2014 video at 11:20-12:00). Mr. Lee’s comment is remarkable on multiple levels.
First, anyone who regularly attends Committee meetings sees that Committee members usually don’t respond to questions or comments except for uncontroversial subjects like parades, holiday celebrations, high school events, etc.. On substantive policy issues, the record is full of Committee responses like “I’m not answering that” or “thank you for your comments.” Many times, Committee members are totally silent.
The development of the Township’s “Community Service Approach” to fire and rescue services is a prime example of the Committee’s reluctance to provide information. Fire services is a critical issue that has dominated public discussion for the last year. At a recent meeting, resident Kathy Burger pointed out how unresponsive Committee members were to public requests for basic information about how these essential services would be provided.
[We] would like all of you [Committee members] to start coming forward with your plan when people come up here and ask you about what is the plan and how are you going to move forward. Don’t sit there and look at the ceiling, look at the walls and look at each other and don’t answer us. It is time. Tomorrow is one year since the petition was brought to you, it’s time to answer the questions (see November 24, 2014 video at 1:15:00-1:15:20).
Second, anyone who regularly attends Committee meetings sees that the Committee’s staff and professionals often take questions about technical matters because they are more familiar with the subject than the Committee. The question that I asked Administrator Cramer, the one which provoked Mr. Lee, was one of these.
Mr. Cramer wrote a report that said, among other things, that the Medford Farms Volunteer Fire Company was under the influence of “outsiders”; and he recommended that the Township Committee not hire that company because of it. I wanted to know what Mr. Cramer meant by an “outsider.” It’s not a term that describes the ability of a fire company to do its job. And it’s an odd term for an Administrator, (an “insider”) to use. In any event, who else but Mr. Cramer should answer what he meant by the term “outsider”? There was no reason for Mr. Lee to answer this question.
Third, anyone who regularly attends Committee meetings sees how grateful committee members are when staff intercepts a hard question that is directed to them. For example, Township Attorney Peter Lange often intercepts questions, and then creates deniability by saying that he can’t speak for the Committee. That said, the Committee hasn’t answered anything.
An example of this occurred at the December 8, 2014 meeting. Mr. Lange intercepted a question that was directed to the Committee during public comment. I tried to re-direct it back to Committee. At that point, Mr. Lee told Mr. Lange to answer the question and avoided answering it himself (see December 8, 2014 video at 13:00-14:13).
It is understandable that Committee members are uncomfortable with some of the public’s questions and comments. These reveal the flaws in their decisions and the falsity of their statements. Just to name a few:
• The thorough investigation and report on fire services that the Committee said it would do was a sham. Subcommittee members Lee and Brown, who conducted the “investigation,” had no notes and produced no written report.
• The Committee promised that it would place the ordinance to dissolve the Fire District on the meeting agenda so that residents could see and attend the public hearing, but they didn’t.
• This Committee said it would settle the Medford Farms Volunteer Fire Company lawsuit if the fire company got rid of certain people.
• Mayor Barton told the Tabernacle Rescue Squad to inflate its budget.
• The Committee is backsliding on its commitment to contract with the Tabernacle Rescue Squad and seems content to let the Squad continue as it always has.
By and large, the public is civil and respectful when it offers comments and asks questions at meetings. Citizens should get a civil and complete answer in return. If Committee members can’t explain what they’re doing and why they’re doing it, they’re not fulfilling their responsibilities as elected officials.
(The next township meeting is January 26, 2015 at 8 PM at Town Hall.)