Fire union's fundraising methods criticized

President says that solicitors may not have followed script

April 17, 2011|By Don Markus, The Baltimore Sun

When Jodi Ceglia received a telephone call recently with the person at the other end soliciting funds for the "Ellicott City Fire Department", she did not question how the money was going to be used. In fact, she did exactly what the caller asked — she wrote a check made out to "Howard County Firefighters" and taped an envelope with her contribution to her front door to be picked up the next day.

"He made it clear that the money was going to 'stay in my backyard,' that it was going to be used in Ellicott City," Ceglia recalled. "The nice thing is that I didn't even have to find a stamp or put it in the mailbox. I was very happy to do it."

But something made Ceglia call her father, John Meitl, a member of the Ellicott City Volunteer Firefighters Association board of directors, who told her the organization's fundraising campaign took place with a flier in the mail rather than by phone. He also explained that this solicitation was likely done by someone representing the county's Professional Firefighters Union and told her to remove the check from the front door.

According to Meitl and Ellicott City Volunteer Fire Department Chief Scott Wood, this type of solicitation has been going on for months throughout the county, underscoring the complicated relationship between the professional and volunteer firefighters as well as adding to what Professional Firefighters Union President Rich Ruehl calls "confusion" by residents on the county's practice of combining the groups in seven of its 11 firehouses.

Ruehl said that his organization has used the same private company for the past two years, which is supposed to read from a pre-approved script. Nothing in the script indicates the caller is representing a local volunteer fire department, Ruehl said.

The following day, Ceglia said, she got another call from the same person asking her about the donation she had promised and whether she had forgotten to put the envelope on her door. Armed with questions from her father about who was getting the money and what they were going to do with it, Ceglia was eventually told that the money was being solicited for the Firefighters Union to help fund its programs and activities.

"They shouldn't be calling on the part of the Ellicott City Fire Department because that's not who's making the phone call," Ruehl said. "To my knowledge, there are not any issues with people going off-script, though I can't guarantee there's [not] one or two times that there's somebody mistakenly identified themselves in answer to a question and something might have been misinterpreted by someone who they called. It's very clearly stated [in the script] that they're calling on behalf of the Howard County Professional Firefighters."

Ceglia, a public relations specialist at a local community college, said the person who called never mentioned the firefighters union during their first conversation. Meitl said that his wife, Claire, received a similar call, as did several of their neighbors, including Doug Gruys, who said he was told that the donation was going to help "the station on Montgomery Road."

"I think they're being misleading," Meitl said.

Jackie Cutler, a spokeswoman for Howard County Fire and Rescue, said that the department would offer no comment except to say that "our department is not involved [in fundraising]" and does not advise either the union or volunteer fire outfits on how to raise funds. Wood said that Howard County Fire Chief William Goddard has been made aware of the situation but that it "was a union issue".

Since Howard County is among at least four counties in Maryland where professional and volunteer firefighters work together, tensions have been more widespread than in other places. Cutler said tension between the two groups "depends on the day".

Ruehl said the relationship between the two groups "is overwhelmingly positive ... and is about as good as you'll see in a combination system. "

"You're certainly going to have little pockets here [and] there; you're going to have differences of opinion over more or less a single issue rather than a broad-based concern, but where are you not going to have that?"

Ruehl also said that there was the chance that whoever made the call was not from the union. He said he was told by representatives from a national firefighters organization that a company based in the Midwest has been calling in recent months "mimicking" the script used by his organization and others in order to solicit funds illegally.

At issue is not only who the callers say they're representing, but how the money is being used.

Ruehl said that the script his organization wrote clearly states that the money is being earmarked for charitable donations, scholarship programs, the purchase of smoke detectors and to help defray the cost incurred by local youth sports teams. Ruehl said that union activities are generally funded by members' dues.

Meitl said that whoever called his wife and daughter was vague about where the money was going.

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