Washington Evening Journal
111 North Marion Avenue
Washington, IA 52353
WASHINGTON — Emotions ran hot at a Brighton City Council Meeting Monday night, where a dispute between the city and its volunteer fire department continued to worry officials and residents alike.
Volunteer firefighters in Brighton have threatened to stop responding to calls within city limits — but continue answering them in the covered townships — after Nov. 30 if certain demands are not addressed. Those demands include the town’s lack of a fire board, and the city’s hesitation to give that board decision-making power.
The dispute surfaced in February, and has continued in the background with little resolution. City officials cited slow communication between legal consultants, poor bookkeeping of previous administrations, delays in state auditing services, and an overall spirit of frustration and mistrust on the issue.
“We’ve been pretty beat up over it, because of things that people have done wrong in the past,” Mayor Melvin Rich said. “This is bull****. I’ve spent 60 years in this town and I’ve never seen nothing like this. We’re trying to correct it, and yet we’re getting kicked in the teeth.”
Fire officials said they had equal reasons for frustration. Fire Chief Bill Farmer said missed payments to the department were too recent to blame on previous city leaders.
“You people are the ones that changed that, you quit paying, you quit paying workers comp and it started coming out of the fire budget,” he said. “Nothing was ever explained to the fire department before this took place. So you’re emotional? I’ve dedicated 40 years of my life to this department … yeah, it’s emotional.”
Council Member Cathy Rich disagreed, saying recent mishaps were the result of older errors.
“When I came on this council … the bank said the general fund was in the red for multiple years, the water fund was in the red for multiple years, the gas fund was in the red for multiple years,” she said. “Why didn’t previous councils set money aside to repair the gas line? The water line? … I don’t think the council can make proper decisions without knowing what the actual expenses are. And the actual expenses were not allocated correctly in a lot of the funds.”
The council voted unanimously Monday night to hire a consultant with two goals. The first is a reconciliation role for proposed 28E agreements — a type of agreement between government that arranges mutual aid — as the city expects the ideal 28Es of the council, the townships and the department to differ.
The second is a third-party assessment of the relationship between the city and its fire volunteers.
At a rate of $70 per hour, capped at a total of $5,990 — although the city expects a lower final sum — council members said they hoped the consultant would signal good faith and bring the fire department back to the table, while also repairing ties in the long run.
“They talked about not responding … unless we showed some positive signs,” said Council Member Paul Shelangoski, who made the motion to hire a consultant. “That’s what I’m trying to do, I’m trying to show a positive sign, that the city’s trying to get this worked out.”
Shelangoski said he hoped the consultant’s specialization in fire department issues would help resolve turmoil.
“I just feel we need somebody that’s got some working knowledge of this that knows how to walk in here, tell the city, ‘You can and cannot do this,’ tell the fire department, ‘You can and cannot do this,’” he said. “We’ve stumbled around all summer with this, I’m tired of it. I want to get this taken care of, and I don’t want to have to worry about whether or not we have a fire department. Everybody in this room should be afraid.”
Firefighters themselves were skeptical.
“I don’t know, I was also told by one person on the council tonight that they are not giving up any power for a fire board,” Farmer said in a brief comment after he left the meeting. “They’re not willing to negotiate.”
Another, who attended the meeting but refused to provide a name, said he was unimpressed.
“The council told us, at this point, that it was between attorneys,” he said. “So what the heck would a $5,000 consultant do?”
For the time being, the old 28E is still in effect. The city approved its annual $7,000 payment to the fire budget earlier in the same meeting, and said at least one township had already paid its annual contribution.
At the previous council meeting, officials balked at the terms of a fire department-proposed 28E that would establish an advisory fire board, give it the authority to settle disputes between the department and the city, and give the fire chief authority to settle disputes within the board.
“There is a reason we have elected officials, there is a reason when we are dealing with tax dollars, we have elected officials overseeing the money,” Cathy Rich said at the last regular meeting. “To hand off that responsibility is not something that this council should consider.”
On social media, the department said clauses about the fire chief’s authority were only included by mistake, but that volunteers stood by plans to give the advisory body more teeth.
“The purpose of the fire board (is) to manage the funding, so it would only make sense that the fire board would have the final say in the operations and expenditures,” a representative of the department said in one Facebook comment thread. “Since it is made up of a representative of each of the townships and cities that are paying into the department, all interests will be fairly decided, versus the city council overriding things to fit their own agenda.”
Volunteer firefighters say the weight of their ultimatum was not something they took lightly.
“Nearly all of the firefighters live in this town and have families and businesses in this town,” a letter from the department posted to social media said Nov. 16. “None of us want to quit, but the city is wasting money stalling in hopes the issue will go away. It will not … Many members are contemplating turning in their helmets because they will not be able to sit at home and not respond to a call for help, but also refuse to be a pawn by the city council.”
Still, the city contests assertions that it’s to blame for the ongoing controversy.
“There’s so much misinformation that’s being turned around, especially on this group of (council members,)” Melvin Rich said. “They’re getting $20 a meeting. I don’t know how many hours are put in by this group of people.”