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Historical Background on DC Fire District Governing Documents
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By Firefighter / Webmaster John Merkel
September 29, 2017

The Westerly Sun was kind enough to publish a letter I wrote discussing the history of certain provisions of the District Charter and Bylaws. The letter was in response to an article published by the Sun on Sunday, September 24: http://www.thewesterlysun.com/news/westerly/10898442-154/dunns-corners-to-begin-new-search-for-fire-chief-after.html . The text of my letter follows:

Some history to help understand Dunn’s Corners Fire District

September 28, 2017

I apologize in advance for the length of this letter. There is a lot of history relevant to the issue and I believe it is worth recalling.

I would like to offer some historical perspective to address the questions raised in the Sunday, Sept. 24, Westerly Sun article, “District to begin anew in search for fire chief.” I was the moderator of the Dunn’s Corners Fire District at the time the current charter was written and approved, and as such I chaired the Charter Revision Committee and the three District Special Meetings held to solicit district electors’ input on that charter. Though that was over 10 years ago some of my recollections of our discussions remain clear, so I share them here.

The current moderator, Matthew Thomsen, is quoted in the article saying, “The supermajority, I don’t know who came up with that.” You have to appreciate that our district was in turmoil at the time, having just gone through a hotly contested chief election under the old charter that threatened to have two different chiefs in Dunn’s Corners — one elected by the department members and a different one elected by the district voters. Fortunately both groups chose the same chief, Mike Frink, so we avoided even more turmoil.

But hearing the firefighters’ pleas (on both sides) during the district chief election made me understand in a visceral way that selecting a chief requires satisfying two disparate groups of stakeholders.

The volunteer firefighters need a chief they can trust, a chief who makes decisions at emergency scenes that literally impact a firefighter’s life and health.

The district voters need a chief who is going to be both technically competent and fiscally responsible so homeowners and business owners can be confident that their fire protection needs are going to be met effectively and economically.

The other members of the Charter Revision Committee felt similarly. In every aspect of the charter revision process we found ourselves sincerely striving to balance those sometimes disparate needs.

We configured the Operating Committee, for example, to include four members — the at-large members — elected by the taxpayers to represent the taxpayers, and one department representative, elected by the Fire Department members, to represent them. The firefighters had a voice at the table, not just the voters. The District Chief was also designated to be a member of the Operating Committee, having a vote in all matters except in regard to his or her own performance.

We also configured a Chief Selection Committee, to be assembled only when needed, to include the four at-large members and the department representative from the Operating Committee, along with two additional members elected by the fire department. The idea was to have a near equality of voices on the committee between the taxpayers’ representatives (four) and the firefighters’ representatives (three).

But even with three votes on the Charter Revision Committee, the firefighters were at risk of being overruled on the chief selection if the at-large members wanted to do so. So we agreed on a supermajority of five to two; at least one of the three firefighters must agree that the chosen chief meets the needs of the firefighters. So the supermajority was for the benefit of the firefighters, but we also felt that the district deserved better than a chief who squeaked in by a single vote.

The Westerly Sun article also questioned the wisdom of having individuals who report to the chief as firefighters also sit in supervision of the chief on the Operating Committee. As I’ve already pointed out, the Charter Revision Committee felt very strongly that the volunteer firefighters deserved a voice in the district’s business due to the sacrifices they made and the risks they took on our behalf. I don’t recall specifically discussing the conflict of a firefighter supervising his supervisor, but I would say today that I would expect such problems could be resolved if the participants acted with maturity and civility. Knowing the character and dedication of the individuals involved in the Operating Committee over the last few years, I am surprised and more than a little disappointed that it became a problem.

There is another consideration when it comes to firefighters supervising their chief. Besides the department representative, there are currently three members of the fire department who serve as at-large members of the Operating Committee today. So even if the fire department representative position was eliminated, you would still have firefighters supervising their chief.

Having firefighters serve as at-large members was never a given. During the Charter Revision Special Meetings we had lengthy discussions over whether to restrict fire department members from running for at-large positions. Some voters were concerned that the firefighters could take over the Operating Committee, and thus the district, unless there was some restriction on membership.

After lengthy discussion, the district decided to allow democracy to run its course. We agreed that the only requirement to run for at-large member is to be an eligible voter in the district. If the district electors wanted to elect firefighters to the Operating Committee, they would be allowed to do so. The decision to allow firefighters to serve on the Operating Committee was not unanimous but it was decisive.

I would add that in my personal experience as moderator, I found it extremely challenging to entice community members who were not firefighters or firefighter family members to participate in district administration, i.e., nominating committee, building committee, truck committee. My take away was that as long as the fire district did a good job of preventing and putting out fires and as long as our fire taxes remained reasonable, no one cared about the fire district except for firefighters. So had we restricted firefighters from becoming at-large members, we would have had a hard time filling all four seats. The makeup of the Operating Committee, past and present, supports that contention.

In summary, the current district charter and bylaws represent a concerted attempt to balance the rights and needs of taxpayers against the rights and needs of volunteer firefighters. We weren’t 100 percent successful, but I think we came pretty close. I urge that anyone who undertakes to revise the charter should first understand the reasons for the provisions in the current charter, then consider very deliberately whether any desired revision improves or worsens that balance.

John Merkel, Westerly

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