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?

My father passed away 6 years ago today

In his later years, some called Dick Davis "Mr. Newfield" because he was always there volunteering for everything and attending every town function.  He gave volunteer service to the town from the age of 18 when he joined the Fire Company until his death at 81.  He was a Church trustee, Board of Education Secretary, Treasurer of the Rose Hill Cemetery Association, Borough Council member for 1 term, on the Board of the Newfield Savings & Loan before it was subsumed by another bank, Founding Father of the Newfield Swim Club.  There was probably more but I was not living in Newfield from 1967-2008.

I can remember seeing the sweat roll off of him as he presided over the chicken bbq pit for the Fire Company fund raiser and I know he did it year after year until it became too much physically.  I can remember his smile as he watched the inaugural jump into the pool of the Newfield Swim Club, formed to give the kids of Newfield someplace safe to swim during the height of the polio epidemic.

At his funeral, it was comforting to have people say how they would miss seeing him at town events.  He was always there, usually with my mother.  He was friendly, quiet, and always there supporting the town he loved in the unassuming ways he could.

I miss him.  The town needs him desperately as he was always the quiet, calm voice of reason and compromise in any conflict.  Did I say I miss him terribly?

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Just the facts, Ma'am, Just the facts

Oh, sometimes there are plenty of facts but hard to get a true perspective.  Two articles in the South Jersey Times newspaper are full of facts.  The one titled "Newfield Council can fire, hire volunteer fire company members Appellate Court says" gives facts about the Appellate Court decision and hints at some of the roots of the long-standing feud between the fire company and the council - what goes on the marquee sign.  The one titled "Newfield Fire Company claims it was removed from service; council president says that's not true" in the online version or titled "Who will respond to fire calls?" in the paper version has each side alleging the other side is lying.

Neither side is lying; just giving their interpretations of the facts, context, and consequences from their own perspectives, particularly the consequences.  The 1950's TV show Dragnet implied that all you needed to get at the truth of a situation was facts but to evaluate consequence we humans need context too.  Context and consequence are what make history and entertainment compelling.  The possibility of drama will draw residents to the Borough Council Meeting Thurs Feb 12, 7:30 pm, no matter which side they are supporting.  Personally, I am wishing for a sweet anti-climatic moment where both sides shake hands and the feud is permanently ended with the fire company minding its own membership and the Borough Council working on the real problems of the town - like the slightly radioactive slag pile left by ShieldAlloy Corporation metallurgy operations; the bare bones budget situation, how to move into the next 20 years with an improving quality of life for residents.  Foolishly, I continue to root for the happy ending.  Isn't that the definition of insanity?

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Breaking News from Boro - Newfield Fire Company No 1 1st in fire control response

I just received a 1-call (public announcement via telephone to subscribers) from the Mayor of The Borough of Newfield.  He wanted to assure the residents that public safety was a priority.  He also said that Newfield Fire Company No 1, which is the Newfield Volunteer Fire Company as far as I know, is the first responder followed by Malaga and Forest Grove volunteer fire companies.

Now my cautious optimism could be misplaced if Newfield Fire Company No 1 is another volunteer force that has been set up as a replacement, but I won't be cynical today.  No, today I will hope that more than a century of tradition in a volunteer fire company has been honored and that someone has put the safety of the town ahead of other agendas.

Not going to sleep well tonight - Newfield not well served or protected

The appellate court upheld the rights of the Newfield Borough Council to hire/fire the chief of the volunteer fire company; to look at their finances (even though they don't receive money from the Borough); to decide membership qualifications; to decide what the volunteer organization's by-laws should be; and more.

Legally, this means that since the membership did not go along with with the Council's decision to fire the fire chief, the Newfield Volunteer Fire Company is no longer allowed to respond to fires or other emergencies in Newfield.  The Malaga Volunteer Fire Company is now responsible; Malaga's fire house is several miles away.

If this rift between the local government body and the fire company were just an isolated incident in Newfield, NJ it would be bad enough but in the whole region there are legal battles being waged between the local governments and the fire companies and/or the local police departments.  I have no clue what is this is a symptom of, but it isn't healthy.   From my limited perspective it seems as if egos and male preening are fueling the battles with a great loss to the local communities.  And, if I was a "twenty/thirty-something" wanting to get involved and support the community where I and/or my young family lived, I would decide not to and even consider moving away.

And, as I have fretted before, if they can legally to this to one volunteer organization in town, can they do to another?  The Newfield Public Library Board, which does get limited funding from the Borough Budget?  The Rose Hill Cemetery Association Board, which gets no public funding? All the Borough Council has to do is write an ordinance that gives them jurisdiction and pass it.  Ordinances are not referendums.  They are not voted on by the town residents.  Only Council members vote after non-binding comments by the public.

Well, I won't be sleeping well tonight.  I certainly don't feel well served nor well protected by "my" local government.  Worse part is, the "threat" I feel was not generated by the vagaries of weather nor the some terrorist group.  The threat I feel is generated by my fellow townspeople.  I also feel we, the current residents, have let down all the people from Newfield's founding in 1869 who gave their time, labor, and money to make Newfield a great "small" place to live.  I'm sorry Mom and Dad; I'm sorry Grandpop and Grandmom, my "pen" was not mighty enough to persuade the persons involved to put their need to be "right"  aside and do what was best for all the people of the town.  Money spent on lawsuits since 2013 could have repaved a street badly in need of repair or more than funded Saturday hours for the Library.  I failed your legacy, another reason not to sleep well.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Chief Financial Officer - Chicken or Egg Problem for small towns

Recently, I was part of a conversation that was coming up with ideas for improving Newfield as a community.  One of the key enablers discussed was a paid chief financial officer.   The assertion was that in order to pursue public and private grants and other funding sources that are vital when tax revenues result in bare bones budgets, a full time chief financial officer is necessary.

Of course, a bare bones budget environment means no chief financial officer at all as any town employee except what the state mandates seems like a luxury.  Hence, chicken or egg problem.   In my ideal world, someone with the right credentials, who had the time, and who did not need the salary, would step up and do the job while donating the salary right back to the town.  I would expect any travel, course and conference fees might be reimbursed but even that could be donated back or paid by a local public service organization.

So, if you live in a small town with this problem and you know of someone who fits the bill, speak up.  Sometimes, what turns someone into a volunteer is being asked.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

why oh why continue the legal suit between the Borough Council and the Volunteer Fire Company

I really thought the issues between the Newfield Borough Council and the Newfield Volunteer Fire  Company had been shelved.  Even members of the Borough Council mentioned how the legal fight had been taking Borough funds that could be better spent elsewhere.  But my hopes were wrong.  The legal actions have not been shelved per an article in the Courier-Post on February 1, 2015.

Personally, not having access to the court documents and pertinent case law, it puzzles me that the court could rule that the Borough Council has authority over an all-volunteer organization regarding its officers, membership, etc.  Borough Council has that authority over the Police Department, but it pays the police officers salaries and other usual funds related to employment.  Yes, Borough Council does own the trucks and other fire equipment that taxpayer funds paid for and they could choose a different volunteer organization to use them in case of fires and other emergencies.  I can even see them putting out a request for proposals to area volunteer fire companies  that spelled out requirements such as response time, certifications, residency, age ranges for active members but it would be highly unusual for such requests to include how the responding organization is to be run or to say who is to run it even if the request were for a contract that involved funding.  When the US Department of Defense puts out requests for proposals to the aerospace companies, the requests do not include qualifications detailing the name of the person they want to manage the contract in each company responding.  It isn't important.  Why it is important between the Borough Council and the Volunteer Fire Company,  I have no clue.

There is a second, niggling topic in the Courier-Post article.  That is, whether the Star-Cross Volunteer Fire Company has replaced the Forest Grove one as backup or not.  The article gives no reason for this change and when I queried an officer of the Newfield Volunteer Fire Company as to that reason, he wasn't even certain that a change had been made at all.  That is disturbing on many levels.  One, the Gloucester County Fire Coordinator was misquoted; two, the Gloucester County Fire Coordinator was misinformed; three, the Newfield Volunteer Fire Company officers are not communicating sufficiently; four, the Newfield Volunteer Fire Company Chief made a decision and the choice had not yet been communicated; five, either the Star-Cross or the Forest Grove companies have not accepted such a change, and so on.  Worse, I still don't know why a change was being discussed or implemented.  Could Forest Grove have requested it because they have their own problems and Star-Cross is the best alternative? I don't know.  Yet, the article makes it appear that the change is for some spurious or nefarious reason.

Small towns across America rely on volunteer, non-profit organizations to provide vital services such as fire suppression, flood control, and ambulance service because it is just too costly to pay for them.  Why alienate even one volunteer with innuendo and partial truth?  If the volunteers had turned the Fire House into a private club house with wild parties long into the night and were not responding to fires or showing up inadequately trained and people or structures were hurt as a result, then go ahead and replace the fire company.  Just do it for the right reasons.