Mayor absent from workshop

Firefighters express ire at upcoming changes
Kathleen Gilluly
Thursday, November 21, 2019
Outlook photo by Chris McConnell                        A recent photo of Laurel’s City Hall. The city council meets there on Tuesday evenings. The next council meeting is Tuesday, Nov. 26, at 6:30 p.m.

A recent photo of Laurel’s City Hall. The city council meets there on Tuesday evenings. The next council meeting is Tuesday, Nov. 26, at 6:30 p.m.

Despite assurances at last week’s meeting that he would interrupt his hunting trip to return for Tuesday’s council workshop in order to hear the concerns of firefighters, Mayor Tom Nelson did not attend the meeting. He did however leave a message with Council President Emelie Eaton to read at the end of the meeting.

Fire Chief Brent Peters began the public input segment at the beginning of the meeting. He first stated his disappointment with the mayor and noted that he thought the issues concerning the fire and ambulance departments were to be an agenda item, which they were not.

“What are we trying to fix?” he asked. “The last 22 years I’ve been a responder in Laurel we’ve had a problem with EMS, not as a result of the EMTs. They are strong dedicated people, but there’s been a problem with staffing to cover all of the calls.”

Chief Peters reported to the standing-room-only crowd that he had received a letter on Nov. 8, that stated the mayor’s intent was to hire a full-time fire chief to oversee both fire and EMS. The chief questioned why the mayor planned to go in a direction that would cost the city more money, when, in his view, it made more sense to hire someone to be in charge of EMS and the five new EMTs that were to be hired, as announced last week on Facebook by volunteer EMS Director Riley Hutchens.

“This year, the fire department is 110 years old and we’ve never missed a call,” he said. “We’ve restructured the fire department in the last 10 years to meet the needs of our community. There’s a lot of talk out there that the fire department is afraid of change. We’re not. We’re realists.” But, he said, “we aren’t open to change when we don’t need it.”

Chief Peters discussed the roles of the 13 stipend-ed positions on the fire department and the jobs those firefighters do, saving the city money in maintenance, radio upkeep, investigations and school education.

“The stipend [for those 13 positions] is not anywhere close to what we would pay for a fulltime chief, who would have to take on those roles,” he said. “So it makes sense to keep the structure of the fire department what it is.”

Shawna Hopper, wife of a firefighter, also spoke regarding her Facebook post about the city’s plans. She said that upon reading the city’s posts, emails and the budget, that there does not seem to be a well-defined plan and that it changes frequently. She asked the council be transparent and honest.

Volunteer Firefighter Jamie Swecker stated he was “sorely disappointed in the mayor. Miss Sparks requested this be on the agenda tonight, he agreed to that and he isn’t here.”

Swecker said it was disrespectful and that the mayor needed to remember that he works for the taxpayers. “He gets a check from the taxpayers … I hope you hold him accountable for not being here.”

There was one discussion item on park hours and an announcement regarding employee and volunteer anniversaries before Council President Eaton took up council matters and read the mayor’s statement.

“I would like to start as council chair by talking regarding the fire department,” she said. Eaton recited several city ordinances stating that the mayor and only the mayor has the authority to hire and create new positions.

“We are the legislators and have the power to approve appointments and the budgets which allows personnel to be paid according to the mayor’s requests. We do not have the legislative power to change the mayor’s mind on a personnel issue. This issue has been planned for a long time and is underway at this moment,” she read from a statement. “Further, we were also informed of pending changes to the fire personnel when the printed budget was provided to us and was approved on September 3rd of this year.” She recited the figures of revenue, expenditures and reserves and continued, “most of these appropriations come from the hiring of emergency personnel staff.”

Eaton continued, “I, meaning the mayor, have made it a number one priority to find a solution … and I am going to provide them that by hiring a fulltime EMS Fire Chief and three full-time EMT Firefighters. I challenged my clerk to budget for this and she did.” The council president also said that the city is working on a safety mill levy and a SAFER grant to fund the new personnel and equipment that will be necessary.

At the end of Eaton’s statement, Councilor Sparks commented that she was disappointed by some comments she had seen on the Facebook thread begun by Hopper.

“First, the mayor contacted me after the meeting last week and told me he was not going to be here which is why the item was pulled from the agenda,” she said. “I believe the discussion was moved to the third of December.” She praised the volunteers for their dedication and then addressed her social media concerns. “The manner in which concerns and frustrations are being expressed … is both unprofessional and inappropriate.” She said she had seen cussing and attacks being made on social media by people associated with the fire department towards folks who didn’t share their views.

The agenda for upcoming council meetings have not yet been posted, so it is unknown when the issues will be address.



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