Thursday, March 12, 2015

My suggestion for a compromise between Borough Council and Fire Company

Since neither mediation nor negotiation happened, I am playing mediator here and making an open suggestion for a compromise.  Item 1: What the Borough Council and Mayor seem to want more than any other result is for the fire chief to be someone else and for regular reports of fire incidents to be reported to them.  Item 2: What the Newfield Volunteer Fire Company seems to want is to be left alone to run the fire company as they always have.  Item 3: What the residents of Newfield want is fire service at the same cost it historically has been.  Item 4: What the town needs if it is to continue to have its own volunteer fire company is a new fire truck.

I can not do anything about the Item 4 as that will raise the tax rate and no one wants that.  I hope a compromise addressing Items 1 and 2 will go along way to making Item 3 happen.

My points for the compromise are:
  For the Newfield Volunteer Fire Company:
  1.  Prepare a succession plan for a new and different fire chief of their choosing to be installed in 6 months in order to give the new chief time to learn what procedures are, start what ever additional training is needed, and practice with the company in the role of fire chief.
  2.  Provide written reports going forward and back to Dec 31, 2012 that make it easy to file incident reports on the national fire incident reporting system.
  3.  Provide a write up of the procedure used to thoroughly vet new volunteers before they can be accepted into the company so it can be treated as public record, with any sensitive material such as passwords deleted.
  4. Provide an affidavit signed by all members that they will not seek to nor re-elect the current fire chief for a period of three years.
  For the Borough of Newfield Council and Mayor:
  1. Repeal the current ordinance and re-instate the the original ordinance governing a fire department.  This will return to control of the fire company, its membership, officers, and finances to the company as it was before 2013.
  2. Amend the original ordinance to include written reports of fire incidents to be provided quarterly in a format and detail that is suitable for reporting on the national fire incident reporting system.
  3. Provide the fire company with the contact information for reporting whatever details the insurance company needs on members and drivers directly.  This protects any sensitive information of individuals.
  4.  Provide an affidavit signed by all members of Council and the Mayor that they will not seek to nor enact a new ordinance about the fire company for a period of three years.
Compromises require trust and there is little of that currently available so I have included affidavits for both sides that at least gives some time for trust to be restored.

The people of Newfield can still win in this situation but time is running out.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

How much will it cost Newfield Borough if Forest Grove is contracted to provide fire services?

The newspaper reports that Borough Council is trying to start up a new fire company and if that fails it will pay Forest Grove Volunteer Fire Company to provide fire services for Newfield.  Nowhere do I find any estimates of what it might cost out of our real estate taxes nor any estimates of how much our house insurance fees might rise.  Forest Grove is several miles away from the center of town and thus response times are longer; every minute counts in a fire and insurance companies take than into consideration.

Somehow it seems it was more important to Borough Council members that they "win" by removing the fire chief and thus the fire company than the cost to the taxpayers.  I wonder if any grants that might be won by the police department if and when the new fire company starts reporting on the National Fire Incident Reporting System will offset all the additional taxpayer cost.  With only 45 calls in a year, I wonder if it makes any difference at all.  Could it be we get few grants because we have so few residents/voters?

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Hippodrone Concept

I have been trying to come up with a new concept for an indoor recreation activity that appeals to all ages and is not just another video game.  I am fascinated with the miniature and micro drones that are available as play toys, so my first thought was as of a big unused warehouse space where you could rent one and pretend you are Snoopy flying against the Red Baron.  Not a lot of imagination in use but it would teach whoever was flying to think in three dimensions.

Well, the next idea was to divide the big space into different worlds like a reef under the ocean, the moon, a World War I battlefield, or a mythic world where dragons lived.  Anyway, the idea is to basically have a simulated landscape to interact with.  Then, the drones can be airborne, undersea water craft, or even move on the landscape.

The simulations played out could also be exploration of the simulated landscape, or a construction project, or a battlefield scenario like helicopter rescue.  This is already done completely in the virtual worlds of video and multi-player online role playing games, of course, but people still enjoy indulge in laser tag so there is some desire to physically interact with a game.

You still need to interact/control the drone through a handheld interface but I can imagine the feedback can be adjusted for the conditions in which the drone is "flying", e.g..; a microsub encounters different friction through water then a helicopter in air.

I am also imagining that the "pilot" can walk around the simulated landscape to view the action (think motion sensors triggering a sea creature folding up and retracting into the sea bed)  and plan various routes.  The handheld could also provide a drone's eye view of the landscape if it is equipped with a camera, or other sensors.  Or, it could be a completely closed landscape like a human body and then the scenario is a version of the film Fantastic Voyage.

This is probably a dumb idea and certainly it would be expensive unless you could figure out how to easily manufacture the landscapes.  Anyway, putting it out there in case it stimulates someone else's imagination for family entertainment with miniature drones.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Worse and worse ... not just control of organization but of their money too

As the Newfield Volunteer Fire Company stated last Thursday, they will not report to fires under the current ordinance.  As reported in the South Jersey Times, they didn't.    It was a traffic accident; autos were damaged but no people and there were no fires either.

I was reading through the article and noticed that some detail on what reports are asked for by the Borough Council.  The article mentions the (1) number of calls received, (2) the membership, and (3) the finances. One and two are innocuous and, I presume, are just repeats of reports already sent to the NJ state or county authorities governing volunteer fire companies.  If the membership list contains sensitive information like license  or social security numbers, it should be redacted.  Public records, and these would be public records under the OPRA statutes, should not contain sensitive information about individuals.

Three is the request that raises red flags for me.  Volunteer organizations like cemeteries, libraries, fire companies, and ambulance services all report financial information to the state yearly.  In the case of the cemetery, the report does not look at operating funds but the maintenance and preservation money set aside in case the cemetery fails and the state has to step in and do minimal upkeep.  In the case of a fire company, it is the funds used to as a type of insurance when an exempt fireman dies.  I don't know the exact definition of an exempt fireman is, but it does involve approval from the Borough Council to complete the application.  Again, there is not a report of funds used in daily operation.  Those reports are made at least yearly to the membership of the organization.  So, if the Borough Council wants a copy of what is reported to the state, that should not be a burden except any personal, sensitive information should be redacted on the Borough's copy.

However, reading the following quote makes me think the Borough actually wants to control the day-to-day finances in order to divert donated funds to pay for other Borough costs, possibly related to fires and possibly not.

The borough has planned to start an inventory of the building on Wednesday night to go over everything inside the building.

Sullivan said the borough owns the trucks and the building. They pay for the gas, insurance and equipment including the gear for the members, but Mason said a lot of the equipment belongs to members of the company.

"Anything we've purchased is rightly ours," Mason said.

Sullivan said there is a question on equipment that the fire company members own.

"Fundraising efforts are geared to residents, so there is a belief that even the equipment bought with fundraising could be taxpayers' money," Sullivan said

That is the very definition of slippery slope right there.  Once any government gets control of any funds it becomes one big pie to be divvied up as needs must.  In the just above bankruptcy level where many governments live, how tempting the donations given to local organizations must be.

I give money to the local fire company, ambulance service, and library.  I feel confident that the money I give will be used for better equipment, training, books, or to support a special program for kids.  If I felt the Borough was doing fund-raising of its own to raise money to keep afloat beyond what is coming in from taxes, I would buy the cake or the raffle ticket or whatever is the inducement.
Heck, a fund raiser that was to pick up stuff I can't take myself to the recycling center/dump is one I have been asking for.

The feud between the Newfield Volunteer Fire Company and the Borough Council is now at a place where only "secret talks" can work to end it.  I, myself, can not think of a solution that allows both parties to save face (and there is lot of face on the line as it is playing out in the news media) and preserve the integrity of both organizations - nor of the town.

Newfield is already in a downward spiral and accelerating: the Fire Company is on its way to being sidelined if not already there; the Newfield Public Library has cut Saturday hours; the Newfield Ambulance Corps has problems having enough people to respond to calls;  the once vibrant ball fields are barely used; the Cemetery totters along barely staying solvent.  Part of this is socio-economic (Newfield was never rich; its industrial base has eroded away; both parents in young families work; more of the town is over age 60 then ever before) and part of this is cultural (volunteerism is not something you can do with a computer very easily when physical labor or presence is required; service organizations like Kiwanis have disappeared).

But part of this downward spiral is a loss of identity too.  People of all ages used to be proud to say they were from Newfield.   Note they didn't say they lived in Newfield, they were from Newfield no matter how long or short they'd been there. When I was a tween (way before that name was invented), we used to call into the radio stations to make song requests and identify ourselves are being from "Sunny Newfield, where it never rains" or sometimes our name was "Sunny Newfield."  There was a sense of belonging; that you were part of something good.  I have been searching for that old feeling in my fellow residents since I came back 7 years ago and all I find are faint, random echoes (yeah, mixed metaphors).  More often I find apathy, people burnt out on frustrating efforts from the past 40 years I was not here, or just plain old pessimists.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Inspired by Witches at Chicago Stock Exchange

In 1969 or 1970, when the women's liberation movement was employing guerrilla theater to draw attention to inequalities in treatment of women including financially (A single woman no matter how well educated or employed could not get a mortgage without a male cosigner.), a group of women invaded the floor of the Chicago Stock Exchange disguised as witches and chanted dire threats if women were not given equal financial rights as men.

Even though I was only 21, I was impressed as to the non-violent yet effective nature of the event.  National news both print and TV reported it and it did draw attention to the inequality.  Eventually, women did get more financial rights and by the early 80's women could get mortgages and business loans on their own merits.  Yes, it was slow but it didn't create dismissiveness as did the cartoonish burning of bras.

I have always longed to stage a bit of guerrilla theater myself in protest of something but having neither the nerve nor the 'stage' presence, I have not.  I thought that the silliness of Newfield Borough Council suing the Newfield Borough Council for control of the marquee sign because the Borough pays for the electricity that lights it was ripe for guerrilla theater (fyi- Borough Council lost).  Here's the scene I would have played had I the nerve:

  1. As I walk forward to the microphone, pluck a hat off someone in the audience.
  2. Identify my name and address.
  3. Say "Gentlemen and Ladies, I heard that you had problems with paying the cost of electricity to light the marquee sign outside the Fire Hall.  Do you know what the yearly cost is?"
  4. Wait patiently for whatever answer they gave in reply. 
  5. Say, as I draw $20 bill from my pocket and with exaggerated movements place into the plucked hat, "Thank you.   Let's see,  I think I have a $20 bill here somewhere.   Let's start a fund with that $20 to offset that cost as a point of contention between you and the Fire Company and let's pass the hat to see what we can raise tonight."
  6. Put the hat in the hands of the nearest spectator.
  7. Walk away.
Of course, in my fantasy, the audience would have roared with laughter and even some of the Council members.  In reality, it probably would have fallen flat.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Cult, clan, family, or something else

One of the dramatic remarks made by a member of the fire company at 2/12/2015 Newfield Borough Council meeting was to the effect that the Council didn't get it: the fire company was a family and that an attack on one of them was an attack on all.  I know that some of the fire company members believe that even if they replaced the fire chief with someone else, that person would be under the same onslaught of scrutiny and demands from the Borough Council, that what the Borough Council wants is a puppet and won't be satisfied until they have one.  Legitimate fears but not a reason to not negotiate.

To me, this has tipped over from family members caring and supporting each other almost to the paranoiac thinking of a backwoods clan or a modern day cult.  After one contentious council meeting there were supposed to be negotiations for a contract between the fire company and the council.  Every date offered by the Council was not one that the fire chief could attend, so the fire company did not negotiate.  In my opinion, that was nonsensical thinking, any members of the fire company could have been designated to attend and listen, it doesn't have to be the fire chief.  Decisions made at negotiations are not whether to accept or reject an offer but whether to take an offer back to either party for a decision.  It makes perfect sense to not show up though for a cult, which only speaks through its leader.

In my limited experience with union negotiations for a contract (oh, yes, I have walked a picket line even as an engineer), a few people from each side meet to present their positions and explore where there might be room for compromise.  Offers and counteroffers are made until there is a vote by the membership on the final offer of the company.  Sometimes the contract is accepted; sometimes it is rejected but the union agrees to go on negotiating using the previous contract; sometimes there is a strike; sometimes there is a lockout.  So far in this multi-year saga, we've had a brief lockout by the Council before negotiations even were offered, a strike now because the contract offered has been not been negotiated (because the fire company only thought the fire chief should negotiate), and operating as if the previous contract was in effect albeit while legal efforts went forward.   Such a mess.

I have tried to find the correct ordinance as there have been several versions.  I wanted to know if there was a detail about what "reports" should be provided if the ordinance is treated as a contract offer.  I can't find it.  But if it is vague, contract negotiations either clear that up or there are memorandum of understanding attached to the contract that would detail the format, content, timeliness, and method of delivery for reports.  Memorandums of understanding are desired because they can be changed during a contract with full agreement from both sides.  There are often technological or economic reasons to change memorandums of understanding but it is not done unilaterally.

Another memorandum of understanding could have addressed the fire company's fears of becoming the puppet of the Borough Council by spelling out the scope of any approvals of members or officers.  After all, the original decision by the Court excised right of the Council to officer approval from the ordinance.

But, of course, this is not a union negotiation, nor a negotiation at all.  Just a big emotional blowout on both sides, way beyond logic or sense or thought of the consequence for the town.  Each side believes they are right and they know what is best and there is no changing of opinion or action towards compromise.  Is there cult thinking both sides? I don't know, but the fire company certainly presents that way in my layman's opinion.

One more thing - there is often intense abhorrence of individuals by individuals on the opposing sides of a negotiation but it doesn't interfere or stop the negotiation.  Sometimes it creates a cold war with outbursts such as Krushchev pounding his shoe at the UN.  But, cooperation on treaties and humanitarian matters still happened through the negotiations of diplomats, not the presidents or premiers.

Well, may be one more thing - some members of Council seem to believe they live or should be living in a pretty, little subdivision where neighbors never violate the neighborhood covenants on external appearance of houses or yards.  Thank heaven they haven't yet extended that notion to house colors.

There are members of my family who will be offended by this post.  They should remember their aunt always speaks her mind, more like their grandmother than their grandfather.  I can not apologize for being myself.

Friday, February 13, 2015

My solution since the whole mess started is to create a Newfield Fire District thru referendum

A fire district would need to be created through a referendum.  I tried to get this started before at the Town Hall meeting held at the Elks but no one paid any attention then and probably won't now but sometimes if you keep putting an idea out there you can get it adopted.

A Newfield Fire District would operate in a manner similar to the Board of Education, as it would contain a board of elected fire commissioners, none of whom could be serving on Borough Council or the Board of Education at the same time.  It would be independent of the Borough Council and of any fire company.  It would have a separate budget funded by its own tax revenues as is the Board of Education.  Just like the taxes raised to support the education of kids in town, there would still be only one tax bill as the same mechanism that collects the Board of Education taxes would bundle in the Fire District taxes.

One big advantage to the taxpayer is the total transparency of what it costs to have fire control in Newfield.  One big disadvantage is that taxes would go up as the fire district board would have to deal with the problem of the age of the fire trucks and other equipment.  It would still be to the taxpayers advantage to contract with a volunteer fire company as that would eliminate salaries, but we, the taxpayers, would know how much is being saved.

Maintenance labor on the fire control/emergency equipment could still be contracted out to the volunteer fire company with taxes covering supplies and replacement equipment.  That was/is the current situation but no one has any idea how many hours the fire company volunteers put in to repair and keep the trucks in working order.

It would be to the volunteer fire company's advantage to report how many hours were spent in training, responding to emergencies like a fire, and equipment maintenance and, I assume, they would put that into any proposal they made to the Fire District Board to have them chosen as the first responding fire company.

Another advantage to the concept of a Fire District Board is that it would be responsible for obtaining grants that improve fire control/emergency response.  This is an onerous task at any time and one the volunteer fire company may be happy to be rid of.  Kudos you get for successfully obtaining a grant far out weigh the effort necessary to make it happen.

Any one interested?