Several members of the Howell Township Joint Board of Fire Commissioners came out to Tuesday's meeting of the mayor and council to express their objections to an ordinance up for introduction.
The ordinance, if adopted, would "designate the local enforcing agency of the Uniform Fire Code as the Howell Township Fire Bureau which shall be maintained, operated and governed by the Township of Howell," according to the agenda item.
Township Manager Helene Schlegel said the Fire Bureau's budget would then come under the township's general budget and costs rather than the fire commissioner's as it currently stands. "It's going through some of the issues that were happening in town it appears we fund something in our budget that is not controlled by the municipality," she said.
Schlegel said that by state statute in a municipality "no municipal funds can be controlled by another entity." Schlegel also said the changes would not affect the fire bureau on an administrative level.
Councilwoman Pauline Smith, a longtime resident of the township, said she originally had some objections to the changes but realized it was needed to comply with the statute.
She compared the bureau to the planning board which is also an autonomous entity but has its budget controlled by the township. "We don't directly tell board members or professionals what to do, but we control the money," she said. "As much as I don't like it, I understand that this has to be done."
Smith was also one of the members of the council who said the changes were also not being done because of issues with the services provided by the fire bureau. "We are not going to interfere at all," she said."They put their heart and soul into take care of us. I would never suggest that we do anything to hurt them but state law is state law."
Mayor Bill Gotto, who also served on the board of fire commissioners and was an employee of the Howell Fire Bureau said he also had questions with the changes initially. He said he did not know what brought the council to act at this meeting, but said it became clear it needed to be done. "This isn't about anybody trying to exercise any authority or take control of anything," he said.
The mayor also said he believed it was important for the township administration and the fire commissioners to work together to find the best course of action for the future of the fire bureau.
One member of the commissioners who was not happy with the changes was Robert Kelly who represents the Ramtown Fire Deaprtment. Kelly, who said he has served since 1982, detailed the history of the fire bureau and the ways it has worked with the administration.
He said many of his fellow commissioners were not happy with the proposed changes or the process that brought about the changes. "Everyone in this room needs to understand the overwhelming majority of fire commissioners that I've spoken to over the past five days feel we were deliberately mislead by the Mayor Elect and the township manager at the public joint board of fire commissioners meeting on Dec. 6."
At that meeting Kelly said the commissioners were "thanked for our cooperation, understanding and willingness to work with the township." They were also told, he said there were "no major issues," and that "maybe one or two little things that may need to be talked about in the future." He said, "taking the fire bureau away from its owner and operator 36 years later is not a little item."
Following statements from other fire commissioners echoing Kelly's statements both Mayor Gotto sand Schlegel said they did not believe there was any attempt to mislead the fire commissioners during the process leading up to Tuesday's meeting. Gotto said he was at the meeting Kelly referenced and, "I did say I don't have any intention of getting involved in any of the day to day operations of the fire districts."
The mayor said the move is part of a continued effort by the administration to ensure the township operates efficiently. "We make sure that we're operating in the way that's legal, that's efficient and in the best interests of all the taxpayers," he said. "I don't see this as being any different. I don't see that anything changes and I absolutely think that we're going to come together and we're going to find a way that this is going to be an agreement that we can all find satisfactory."
Before the council voted unanimously to introduce the ordinance Gotto said it was important to him that all the parties involved scheduled another meeting before its vote for adoption which is scheduled for next month. "If at the end of the day the only reason we got to where we are is that this is the way we've done it for 30 years, that's not enough for me," he said. "I'm going to make sure we get it done the right way and the way that all of us agree is the proper and legal way to do it. That's what this is about. It was never about anything more than that."
Mayor Gotto said there may have been "some disconnects that happen during the course of a year when it comes to some human resource issues, possibly some purchasing issues that are different with the fire bureau than they are with any other municipal entity." He added, "As long as that department is funded by the municipal tax rate, by statute we are responsible for it."
Schlegel also said that she objected to the view that the changes were being made "to get more power to the township manager and to mislead anyone." The manager said she has a "fiduciary responsibility to account for all monies that are spent out of the township budget."
She said she would be "deficient in my duties as Township Manager if I were to continue to allow no accountability for township funds."
Councilman Robert Walsh also said he did not have any objections to what the fire bureau does, but said they need to be held to the same standards as other township employees. "if it's breaking the law right now and something needs to be adjusted lets adjust it," he said. "I don't think any of you fire commissioners think we should take opinions from attorneys that say we're breaking the law and turn the other cheek."
Councilman Ed Guz said he believed it was important that the administration was not taking on a new role with the fire bureau's operations. "I think assurance has been given by the township manager and the mayor that there's not going to be any interference with your operational mission or the way you conduct business because you provide one of the most vital services to the Howell residents."
Councilman Robert Nicastro also agreed that that was a key factor to the proposed changes. "When I read the ordinance it's an administrative oversight issue," he said. "People are going to go to work everyday and do their job every day. I don't see anything changing other than the people they report to."
After the meeting Mayor Gotto said that while there were rumors about more possible changes to come he wanted people to see the facts of the situation as the develop. "Judge me by actions in six months," he said. 'Don't judge me by rumors and paranoia."
The ordinance will be up for adoption at the Feb. 19 meeting at the new Municipal Building.