Fire Dept. leadership changes put on hold

Borough Council
cannot decide on
manner of restructuring

By carolyn o

Fire Dept. leadership changes put on hold

Borough Council

cannot decide on

manner of restructuring

By carolyn o’connell

Staff Writer

Plans to introduce an ordinance to enable balanced representation for both of Oceanport’s firehouses have been scrapped. Instead of introducing the ordinance, the Borough Council asked that nominations for next year’s chief be delayed.

Tension between the two houses — Port-Au-Peck Chemical Hose Company (Hose) and Oceanport Hook and Ladder Company (Hook) — has been growing, stemming from what representatives of Port-Au-Peck have said is unfair representation in the highest ranks of the volunteer fire department’s officers.

Traditionally, the top three posts in the department — chief and first and second assistant chiefs — have been filled with an eye toward both houses being represented. Over the past few years, that tradition has been set aside as Hose, with nearly twice as many members as Hook, has filled all three positions from its ranks.

If the lineup of chiefs remains the same into next year, Hook will have gone four years without one of its members serving as chief.

In an attempt to remedy the situation, councilmen Gary E. Wolfe and Michael Mahon have met with both houses.

According to Wolfe, after two lengthy meetings spanning more than five hours, neither firehouse was satisfied with the suggested solutions.

Two drafted ordinances were put on the table as possible solutions. The first was to introduce a different lineup of officers, which would include one chief, one assistant chief and two deputy chiefs.

This plan, noted Wolfe, would accomplish two things.

"It would allow for the chiefs in position now to move up the ranks without interruption," said Wolfe, "and it would allow the Hook to integrate a member into a chief’s authority."

Once representation is accomplished, the ordinance would revert back to three chiefs, making the ordinance only a temporary situation.

The second proposal is to have a chief and two deputies, with each house selecting a deputy. The chief would then be chosen in a department-wide election. While this would not guarantee that Hook would have a chief in coming years, it would ensure that the house would be represented in the lineup.

According to Bob Howie, president of the Hook, members of both houses did agree between the two proposed ordinances, choosing the latter.

"I think that was just a matter of perception," said Wolfe. "The latter was never a proposal on the table; it was only a suggestion. I did not gather that there was a compromise.

"The latter proposal would stop the prior election from continuing, and I don’t think that is fair," the councilman continued. "We don’t want to act as the Supreme Court."

Mahon also said he did not understand it as a compromise. In fact, he wrote a summary of the discussion, noting that neither proposal was agreed to. He said Hose did not have enough members present to vote on any agreement.

"What we will introduce is the first draft, implementing one assistant chief and two deputy chiefs, allowing for Hook to get in," said Mahon.

Councilwoman Maria Gatta said, "This does not ensure that [Hook] will move up."

"Correct," said Wolfe. "It does get them in the door with equal footing. The Hook has nothing now; this gives them a piece of the pie."

"This is a compromise position," said Mahon. "They each get in, but Port-Au-Peck will have a chief representing (them) for the fourth year."

Without specific wording to formulate an ordinance for introduction, the governing body suggested that an ordinance be introduced with whatever changes necessary being made before its final reading. This was suggested as a means to move the ordinance forward so it could be adopted in time for the nominations.

However, Mayor Gordon N. Gemma said the ordinance cannot be introduced with planned changes. He said such a procedure could make the ordinance invalid.

Without an ordinance to introduce, Wolfe and Mahon asked representatives of the firehouses to hold off on nominations until an ordinance is ready.

That would mean the fire department’s nominations, scheduled for the end of October (each house has a different date in October), would be delayed until November. Elections are held in late November or early December.

"My initial position on this situation was not to be in this position," Gemma said. "Once the floodgates are opened, it’s hard to close a Pandora’s box."

Discussion on the ordinance led to the airing of other matters of importance to the fire department.

Tom Crochet, treasurer of the Oceanport Hook and Ladder Company, suggested that officers of the department have an input on the department’s budget and that a five-year plan should be outlined.

Stuart Briskey, former ex-chief of Port-Au-Peck, told the mayor and council that the existing fire ordinances, which are at least 15 years old, need to be revamped.

Briskey pointed out that a standard should be set which both houses have to adhere to, instead of each house having its own standards, even though it is one fire department.

"We (council members) can legislate until the cows come home; we can’t legislate leadership," said Councilman Martin McGann.

"You need to rise above the differences," he added, addressing the volunteer firefighters. "It’s your responsibility to give leadership to bring the two houses together."

The council pushed the introduction of the ordinance to its Oct. 17 meeting, giving firefighters and the council more time to negotiate the terms. If introduced on Oct. 17, the ordinance could be on the council’s Nov. 7 meeting schedule for a public hearing and adoption.