By BARRY UNDERWOOD
I was a former member of the village of Westfield Fire Department for 15 years. It was because of my affection for the fire department that I agreed to serve on the Board of Fire Commissioners three years ago to try to help with some of the problems they were experiencing within the department.
When the BOFC was formed, our job was to provide oversight for the department to help take some of the burden off the village board in dealing with the fire departments' many ongoing issues. We were all volunteers that sat on the board, and just like the fire department, did not get paid for our duties. The BOFC was initially formed, in part, at the request of the acting chiefs who approached the village board and requested help in handling the many issues going on in the fire department. Little did I know when I was asked to serve, how many issues there actually were and how many members of the fire department wanted to keep doing things the way they had always been done in the past. As a result, the BOFC ended up being consumed in dealing with many personnel and discipline issues that the acting chiefs could not or would not address. Of course, those things were not popular with many members of the fire department.
Mayor Mike VandeVelde is pictured standing, with members of the fire department and Board of Fire Commissioners.
The fact is the BOFC has been the recipient of many unfounded or unsubstantiated criticisms and has not been able to openly discuss some of the actions we had taken because of the confidential and legal issues involved. We were not trying to hide anything - much to the contrary - we wanted transparency and had worked diligently to achieve it. The fact of the matter is the BOFC was formed appropriately, has conducted itself professionally and has led the fire department through many challenging issues. We were asked to make decisions the leadership of the fire department at the time would not do. We ended up being "the bad guys" because these decisions were not popular, but were the right thing to do in the best interest of the department and the community. We asked for accountability and professionalism from this organization - which should be expected from any department of this village which is funded by taxpayer dollars.
We have had little support from our current mayor and absolutely none from our town supervisor. One might think that of all the people in this community, these two individuals would want accountability from the fire department for our citizens more than anyone. It appears our mayor feels he is indebted to some of the fire department members for getting him elected. Our town supervisor is beholding to the same people, which includes her husband. I feel that neither of them have been looking out for the taxpayers of Westfield beyond their own personal agendas.
We (the BOFC) were charged to make sure that taxpayer and fundraising dollars were allocated and spent appropriately and that the officers and members were conducting themselves professionally. We tried to do that and it has resulted in several suspensions and most recently the expulsion of our most recent past chief. After continual outcry for information relating to the most recent suspensions, I read the following statement in public at our March 4 BOFC meeting:
"At this time, on behalf of the BOFC, I am going to recap the disciplinary hearings held for the suspended officers of the Westfield Fire Department. On January 8, 2014, hearings were held at Eason Hall. The hearing panel consisted of the village justice, three members of the BOFC, and two community members from Westfield who have never served on the BOFC.
"The hearing panel made findings for all three suspended officers. Those findings were then forwarded to the full BOFC for adjudication at the February 4, 2014 BOFC meeting. In executive session at that meeting, the BOFC affirmed the findings of the hearing panel.
"At the conclusion of the Jan. 8 hearings, members of the hearing panel asked the BOFC chair (me) to request the village board of Westfield to refer the matter to an outside criminal investigative agency. This request was made by the hearing panel based on evidence developed during the investigation and hearings indicating that potential criminal activity involving the theft or mishandling of public funds had possibly occurred.
"Following the acceptance of the findings by the BOFC at the February 4 hearing, members of the hearing panel submitted a written request to the BOFC chair (me) formally requesting a criminal investigation. As the BOFC chair, I forwarded that request to the village board.
"On March 3 the Village Board of Westfield affirmed the request for an outside criminal investigation in this matter."
The truth is, the negative publicity that the fire department has received in the last few years can be laid at their own feet , not on the shoulders of the BOFC. The fire department can blame itself for any controversies which have arisen in the media and the village. If the fire department had just operated correctly according to New York state laws and its own bylaws, there would have been no issues for a BOFC to even address!
Some time ago the BOFC instituted an "EMS Only" membership policy. As some of you may know, the fire department has continually had trouble getting enough people to respond to EMS calls so they can get the ambulance responding quickly. In some cases, the fire department has had to call on mutual aid from neighboring departments to respond for them. I feel bad for the families that are waiting for an ambulance to arrive. To help the situation, the BOFC developed a policy to help the fire department in recruiting people that perhaps were only interested in serving on the ambulance and were not interested in being firefighters. Possible candidates would be members of the community that already had medical training (e.g. doctors, nurses, EMTs, etc.) or people that would get the medical training but did not necessarily want to go into burning buildings. You know what? We could barely get the fire department to advertise this or promote it in any way. It did not fit into the old way of doing things. So who were they really looking out for? The members of the community who fund them with your tax dollars and generous personal contributions, or their own set ways of doing things? Many times they have had to wait for an EMT to be able to answer ambulance calls, so why not promote such an idea for the betterment of the fire department and the community as a whole? Because it was not the way they had been used to doing things for the past 150+ years!
Another issue which has been continuously divisive is that the fire department seems to want to continue to have the Firemen's Exempt Association involved in their fundraising activities. The NYS Comptroller's office conducted an audit of the fire department between 2010 and 2012. Their findings concluded that there were numerous irregularities in the financial practices being conducted within the fire department. The comptroller suggested many corrective actions including, but not limited to, separating all monies, accounts and fundraising activities between the fire department and the Exempt Association. The BOFC had already been dealing with this issue for quite some time and long before the Exempt building was sold on Bourne Street. Until the BOFC instituted a separation between the two groups, the Exempt Association had been raising money through their annual fund drive letter, the ox roast and other events under the auspices that the proceeds were going to the fire department. Instead, the Exempts were taking the money and paying for that building and possibly some other things. This community will never know exactly where all the proceeds from these fundraisers actually went, as it is a private entity and not under control of the village, therefore its records are not public. The point here is that the Exempt Association was misleading the public for years into thinking that the money that was raised was going to the fire department, which it was not! At least we were somewhat successful in trying to expose this situation and educate the public as to what was going on.
As a taxpayer in the village and town of Westfield, I want to know that the tax money I pay, or the funds that I donate, are spent appropriately. Westfield Fire Department is not alone in this as other local fire departments have recently been implicated in some of the same problems upon completion of audits conducted by the state Comptroller's office. Refreshingly, the treasurer of the Mayville Fire Department was recently in the paper because he wanted to point out that they were not in the news because the Comptroller's office found nothing wrong with their financial activities.
The treasurer stated, "All of our records were in order and available, all of our documentation was in place, receipts on file, and accurate financial statements that had been presented to the membership every month - as confirmed in meeting minutes - were on file and available for review."
In other words, at the Mayville Fire Department, no problems were found because of its transparency and appropriate record keeping. Is it too much to ask that Westfield Fire Department to do the same thing? I commend the Mayville Fire Department for being compliant and doing the right thing!
Don't get me wrong, there are a lot of great members in the Westfield Fire Department that are there for the right reasons: to be a firefighter, an EMT, etc., and serve our community to the best of their abilities. Many members there do a great job and we have tried to be as supportive of them as possible. We were always supporters of any trainings, safety or recruitment efforts and many equipment repairs or upgrades. We have commended them for doing a great job many times at fires or other emergency calls.
The bottom line is that the fire department is definitely better off today than it was three years ago when the BOFC was formed. We brought transparency and accountability to the fire department and began to separate the fire department's business from that of the Exempt's even before the State Comptroller recommended it in their findings. We handled many issues brought before our board that would have precluded the village board in handling all of the other departments in the village, and did so in a professional manner. We instituted policies that can continue to propel the fire department forward in the future if they use them.
As I said in my recent resignation letter to the Westfield Village Board, I realize that we cannot help people (despite their many documented problems) who think they do not need to be helped.
In closing, I want to thank a few people: Our former Mayor Dave Carr and the village board for having the guts to establish the BOFC. Also, I want to thank all of the members who have spent their time and energy serving on the BOFC these past few years: Jon Belcher, Jack Raab, Dave Spann, Rick Raynor, Scott Mason, Brad Szymczak and Deb Puckhaber. I appreciate all your support both personally and in the best interests of the fire department and citizens of Westfield. We had a tough job to do but we accomplished a lot.
I wish the fire department all of the best under its new leadership. Hopefully lessons have been learned from past events. Remember however, we will all be watching how you and our elected officials handle these issues!
Barry Underwood is a Westfield resident. Comments may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org