County Council Courage under Fire

July 19, 1994

The Anne Arundel County Council is getting a second chance to put an important charter amendment involving the fire department on the November ballot. Let's see it muster the courage to do the right thing this time.

The volunteer firefighters, who oppose the amendment, are a strong political lobby. So it's not hard to see why four of the seven council members -- David G. Boschert, Virginia P. Clagett, Maureen Lamb and Ed Middlebrooks -- refused to buck them when the measure came up several weeks ago, especially when three of the four are running for higher office. But doing what is best for the county and its taxpayers ought to come before mollifying interest groups and looking after one's political future.

This revised amendment defines the relationship between volunteer firefighters and the county fire department, a source of disagreement since the inception of charter government 30 years ago. In terms of safety and economics, the county has an interest in seeing this matter settled.

An impartial citizens' committee has found that the volunteers' belief that they are independent of the department except at fire scenes runs contrary to the charter and hinders the county from fulfilling its responsibility to manage fire resources. How can it do that when volunteer companies feel they can bar the fire administrator from inspecting equipment, lock career firefighters out of their stations and defy administrative policies?

Based on the committee's work, the amendment would give the county fire administrator control over the volunteer personnel, equipment (much of it bought with tax dollars) and public money, during and after emergencies. It also establishes the corporate independence of the volunteer companies, prohibiting the fire administrator from interfering in their corporate affairs.

Included in this version of the amendment is a clause allowing the council to clarify or limit the fire administrator's authority. County Executive Robert R. Neall presumably included this as an enticement to the council. But the amendment was better without it. It leaves the council too much room to play politics and invites future contention.

Nevertheless, this amendment should be approved at the polls -- but the council first must give voters that chance.

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