Neall denies proposal was vendetta against volunteer fire companies

July 07, 1994|By John Rivera | John Rivera,Sun Staff Writer

County Executive Robert R. Neall said yesterday that he was not surprised the County Council refused to place a charter amendment on the November ballot that would have required changes in the Fire Department.

Mr. Neall strongly rejected charges by several volunteer firefighters at a public hearing Tuesday night that the amendment, which would have imposed greater control over the volunteer companies, was a political vendetta.

"This is like trying to erect a statue of General Sherman in Atlanta, Ga. It's not going to come easily," Mr. Neall said of the amendment.

The volunteers said the proposed amendment would have required the volunteer companies to abide by the Fire Department's chain of command and its operating policies.

"We got to that sentence, and that sentence is totally unacceptable" to the volunteers, Mr. Neall said.

Mr. Neall said he appointed the 10-member Fire Department Study Committee in September to make recommendations on how the fire service could operate more efficiently and to address tension between volunteer and paid firefighters.

But he said the panel was a completely independent group. "I had very little to do with them," he said. "I tried to find 10 community leaders whose reputations were beyond reproach. . . . This is a group of people who had no ax to grind."

He noted that the committee was formed at the request of volunteer fire companies so that they could get a hearing for their complaints, which they did not believe Mr. Neall's administration was willing to provide.

"They asked for this," Mr. Neall said. "Of course, the outcome wasn't what they wanted. So they resort to their tried-and-true method and they come out in force" at the council meeting.

LeRoy Wilkison, president of the Anne Arundel County Professional Firefighters, Local 1563, said his group did not agree with all of the committee's recommendations but felt that its members "did a very credible job" and that on the whole the recommendations should have been adopted.

"I think it's a shame that astute members of this committee did such a fine job and nobody listened to them," Mr. Wilkison said. "Everybody wants to wait and see. But you can only wait so long."

Volunteer companies have been at odds with the fire administration over the chain of command issue since March 1992, when Paul C. Haigley, then the fire administrator, demoted volunteer chiefs to the rank of captain, pushing them below paid captains.

The committee proposed restoring the position of volunteer chief if the volunteer companies would submit to greater control over their operations, including allowing the fire chief to inspect their stations, assign personnel to their stations and transfer equipment owned by a volunteer company if needed.

The amendment would have triggered several other changes, including changing the name of the department to the Department of Fire, Rescue and Emergency Medical Services, and the title of fire administrator to chief.

Council members said they voted against the resolution that would have put the amendment on the ballot because they wanted to avoid pitting volunteers against paid firefighters during the election.

"Divisiveness in the fire service will occur because they will put politics before public safety in my opinion, and I will not accept that," said David G. Boschert, a Crownsville Democrat who was one of four council members who voted against the resolution.

He said many of the committee's recommendations should be adopted. "It's just that the timing is off. It's best to take this up when a new administration and County Council come on line," he said.

Councilman Carl G. "Dutch" Holland, a Pasadena Republican, argued that postponing the decisions on the committee's recommendations accomplishes nothing. "The purpose of the charter amendment was to put this issue to rest once and for all," he said. "We're just back to square one. [The volunteers] haven't compromised with anything. They haven't agreed to anything."

Mr. Neall said he would meet with Raymond F. Turner, the committee chairman, before making his next move. One possibility is instituting some of the recommendations administratively, and another is using a petition to get the charter amendment on the ballot.

"Dr. Turner and the rest of the group's members will have a great deal of bearing on what my next move will be," Mr. Neall said. "They may just throw up their hands and say, 'Well, we got a civics lesson.' "

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