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Sunday, May 24, 2009

Time to extinguish firefight?

Kudos to Malone Vandam for proposing a detante for the, erm, firefight at Village Hall.  It's the only commentary I've seen that's done anything but fan the flames of folks whose tempers have been understandably rubbed raw all around.  In general I prefer we all play nice even if we disagree, even going so far as to referee comment fights, and Vandam's suggestion to give Shari Osborn the benefit of the doubt makes sense.

As Rachel Lagodka said of Brian Kimbiz, "I have to work with whoever gets elected."  I don't doubt that the calls for Shari's resignation could build up steam and perhaps even succeed.  But really, is that the best use of human effort?  A drawn-out, unpleasant squabble that will sell papers and slow down any real progress on funding the fire department.  At least it would be contributing to the local economy.

8 comments:

kt tobin flusser said...

I agree that this should be much less about personalities and much more about policy and the budget. I am not even clear on what exactly was cut from the fire department budget -- and what the ramifications are for public safety. And if there are significant consequences for public safety - what recourse do we have now since the budget has already passed?

Steve Greenfield said...

This is not about personalities. Some people think it is because the situation has not been fully explained, while others are making it out to be about personalities because they want to deflect attention from the real situtation. Luckily none of the latter are part of Gadfly.

I speak only for myself, not the NPFD.

With regard to the NP Journal post to which Terence referred: I disagree with the premise, which by definition means that everything that follows falls.

Shari does not win points for being someone who wants to do the right thing. I take that as an assumption for anyone performing community service. The question is whether she's capable of doing the right thing. I have found the answer to the more important question to be "no" for some time. I can't judge how much of it results from her misunderstanding of how to apply her judgment (she casts too many votes based on "what seems best to me and my lifestyle," which she has articulated she conflates as synonymous with what's best for The Village) and how much of it stems from being clueless about how to prioritize municipal services and operations within those services. Given her statements at the Village Board meeting (and you must understand this has nothing to do with whatever she muttered after we'd left) it's clear that both elements are in play in this current situation.

She's been cut as much slack as anyone can get in this situation. That she perceives herself as being the only Board member with the "guts" to "stand up to us" is precisely the reason why she has to apologize -- not just to us but to the entire community that we are assigned to protect. We did not come in seeking additional vacation days or nicer paneling in our TV room. We came as your fire experts to express why the safety of the community and the safety of those who volunteer to protect it would be compromised by certain budget decisions that were proposed at that time. Given the context, what exactly does it mean to "stand up" to us? Or to accuse us of coming in to "intimidate" the Board? Has she yet contemplated that? Have you? What about her demand to have it on record that Scott had threatened her when all he'd said was that she should speak more respectfully to the Fire Chief when she was lecturing us on how we're no different than the flowers on Main Street and accused him of attempted intimidation? What about her "clarification" that all she'd meant that night was to inform us that we're not unique among Village departments? If she does not know, even with time to reflect, that we are in fact completely different than all your other departments, and unique among them, then under what definition is she fit to serve?

Shari has been a friend of mine for the better part of 8 years now. Our kids are in the same activities, we hang out at the pool. You have to realize that if I'm this pissed off, then something bad really happened. The Mayor's main interest, as well as the Gadflies and the full community, should be to quickly smooth this over rather than defend the indefensible and make things worse.

The best next step would be if the Mayor could find it in your heart to issue a statement that says something really simple like "the budget process this year was a real pressure cooker, things got tense for all of us while trying to balance competing interests, certain statements made did not reflect the position of the Village Board or this community, the Fire Department is unique among our services and unparalleled in its all-volunteer, round the clock commitment to the protection of life and property in and around New Paltz during its most dangerous emergencies, and their dedication to the provision of those services continues to enjoy my full support and that of the Village Board," Should he do this, we'd probably find this situation defused in about two hours, and then the event Butch is throwing on Flag Day can be a celebration instead of a confrontation, and we could move on to the questions posed by kt above.

Steve Greenfield said...

Next steps by citizens, in response to kt:

This is the elephant in the living room -- how many more calls can the NPFD handle before the known threshold (maybe 50 to 100 calls per year above where we are now) is crossed that will add $1000 per year per household to the Village and Town property tax burdens? When you have Village Board members who think they're "standing up" to the NPFD officers when they're the only ones studying the options and taking action to preserve the all-volunteer force in the face of the changing reality of the demands of New Paltz firefighting is totally eff'd up. Totally.

What needs to be done is for the citizens themselves to start going to Village Board meetings and asking the mechanical questions: Is volunteer firefighting in jeopardy due to increased call load? What's the cutoff number according to official standards? Is Albany offering specific relief from the campus call load -- actual relief from the response demand and not just donations to offset costs? If not, what steps are we taking to provide the volunteer department with what it needs to remain volunteer? Is our fire department proposing unrealistic financial demands on the Village budget compared to what is usual and customary for volunteer fire service? How much do way pay per call, and per $1000 of assessed value for fire service here vs. in our neighboring communities? What would be the cost of a nine hundred call department if the threshold were crossed and a paid on-premises crew that meets state and federal minimums for manpower and equipment became necessary? How complex and expensive should we expect contractual obligations for salary, health care, workplace conditions, and pensions for a new, unionized bargaining unit to be? If the Village Board is proposing mechanisms to perpetuate the all-volunteer status of the fire department that differs from those being proposed by the NPFD, or is proposing mechanisms for recruiting, training and equiping new and existing volunteers to state-certified basic firefighting levels that differ from those being proposed by the NPFD, what are those mechanisms, and how are you sure that those mechanisms are equal to or better than those being proposed by the NPFD?

Etc. They don't currently have answers to any of those questions, let alone all of them, and that's why it's not personal, even if the anger level is creating that impression. That's why I'm so pissed about Shari saying she's the only one with the guts to stand up to the NPFD. She's putting your life, my life, and your taxes on the line, and she hasn't a clue as to what she's saying or why she's saying it. If she wants to learn, there are people who are happy to teach. If she doesn't want to learn, she should resign and let someone who actually wants to administer a Village take her seat.

Martin McPhillips said...

I've watched many village board meetings with Dungan, Zierler, Gallucci, Osborn and first Portier and then Healey. For the most part these meetings are intelligent, deliberative, business-like, nuts and bolts efforts to do the best with the available resources. Sometimes they go into too much detail and try to refine their effort beyond what's called for. Not an uncommon error.

Shari Osborn has often "stalled for quality" and asked the next question. Her only serious flaw is her tendency to think out loud, sometimes at length. This was an exceptional board (Zierler's departure will be challenging), earnestly dedicated to doing the right thing, and the surprise shortfalls (with the state holding onto some funds that are normally sent along more directly) led to a difficult budget process this year. There was chafing among the personalities. But there is not an American who pays any attention who did not know that we are in an economic downturn.

All of the trustees, their stipends notwithstanding, are essentially volunteers, working well beyond what people might think. The mayor gets paid a little more for a lot more work.

I share about zero politics in general with any member of the board. I don't even care to know what their larger political viewpoints are issue by issue. But they are all bright, serious, deliberate people who always seek to get to what's right for the village. Shari especially so. She thinks through and around issues.

So she sometimes shoots her mouth off, big deal. Every once in a while it can be mildly entertaining.

I'm waiting for when the New Paltz Times reporter catches an officer of the fire department she's taken a sudden dislike to (and that can and probably will happen, eventually) making some politically incorrect statement to the person next to him and blowing it out of proportion.

Unlike Terry Dungan, I don't think that happens because someone wants to sell newspapers. I think it's just petty, vindictive "advocacy journalism" where what's being advocated is the reporter's velleity of the moment. It reminds me of what has been said about similar matters in academia: the battles are so nasty because the stakes are so small.

Terence said...

Velleity? Even my browser's spellcheck has never heard of the word, so I don't feel bad having had to look it up.

In case anyone else was wondering, it means "a mere wish, unaccompanied by effort to obtain" according to wordie.org.

Billy said...

KT, that you are not clear on the substance of the "debate" is, unfortunately, the intended result of too many individuals on both sides. The name calling and personal slights are intended to do just that...obsure the facts. Makes it hard for those of us who have not witnessed the blow-by-blow action all along to make sense of what's really going on here.

Steve Greenfield said...

Look, it's one thing to be a gadfly, but it's another to speak declaratively about things you didn't see and areas in which you have no knowledge, let alone expertise. That's just enjoying the sound of your own voice. Nobody here except me was at the meeting. Nobody here except me has first-person knowledge of the mishandling of the budgetary process, the essential steps skipped in choosing the cuts package, or the personal abuse levied at a staff of high-risk, volunteer Village personnel who all spend more man hours per month than Village trustees spend per year, stipend or no stipend, which, for firefighters, is no stipend. Chief Weeks answers more than 600 calls per year, every year. That's the real number of times he shows up for calls. We also meet every Monday night for three hours, plus a monthly Executive Board meeting, a monthly Line Officer's meeting to improve firematic techniques and command structure (what you paid people would call "professional development") plus special trainings, plus mutual aid to neighboring companies, lengthy stand-bys for floods and snowstorms that can last from two days to a week, and even things like 72 hours of pumping raw sewage (and breathing it in) to keep it from washing over Huguenot Street and coming in contact with you taxpayers -- gadflies or otherwise. And that's before you even discuss research for equipment purchases, grant writing, filling out PO's, fending off salesmen, and -- the full time job he has to hold to be able to do all this for free, plus maybe some time for his wife and kid. Dave's been taking his life in his hands for 25 years now at this pace and there has never been a Village Board member who could approach his dedication, time commitment, risks, and skills.

And that's just the chief. Do you know that if a firefighter fails to appear for 120 calls per year, plus 9 monthly meetings, plus 50% of the weekly trainings, he or she gets kicked out? Do you know that we pay for our own gas, even when gas is $4.25 per gallon? That all of us in the "200 Call Club" pay at least $100 per year out of our own pockets for the gas we use to respond to the taxpayer's emergencies -- for the privilege of doing all this? Do you know a single Village Board member who shows up for work even half that often, and they get paid to boot?

And this needs repeating, no matter how cute you think you are: this does not have, and never has had anything to do with whatever Shari muttered after we'd left. We couldn't give a cross-eyed crap about that. This has to do with the process that led up to the meeting, the willful ignorance (or willful acceptance) of the present and future danger to firefighters and residents created by that bad process, and the barrage of abusive and insulting statements made to and about the entire Fire Department during the course of the meeting -- not anything that happened after we left. If you read Erin's article, then you had to have noticed that the personal remark was reported near the end. It was not the substance of her article, nor is it the substance of why we're upset. This is serious stuff. If it amuses you, than come down and fill out an application and put yourself through the 82 hours it will take you to get certified, and do what we do for a year. We'll see how long you think this has to do with Shari muttering a potty word about one person, and we'll see how much you think this has to do with a reporter who's out to "get" Terry.

If Shari has too much pride to do the right thing here and apologize, then it's incumbent upon the Mayor to act Mayoral and settle this down with a short statement. If you want this settled down, that's what you should be advocating.

That's all for this post. My next one is my letter in this week's New Paltz Times.

Brittany Turner said...

Steve, for once I agree with you. But jeez, SHUT UP. Not everything has to be said in 57258209385093468498 words.

Shari was way out of line and needs to apologize.

Ah, the joys of brevity.