By DAVID CARR
I would like to reply to a recent article that appeared in the OBSERVER in regards to comments made at a village of Westfield Board meeting. During that meeting, a member of the Westfield Fire Department stated publicly that while I was mayor I had a vendetta against the Fire Department. This is a false statement, which I feel necessary to respond to with facts, rather than with unfounded allegations.
As mayor of the village eight years, I clearly understood that public safety was paramount to the vitality of the community. Without professional and competent police and fire departments, people will choose to live and work elsewhere. Without a stable population and business community, any village will suffer.
During my tenure as mayor we were fortunate to have some very active and willing volunteers at the Westfield Fire Department. These brave men and women would respond to calls at all hours of the day and night, many of which interrupted their meals with the their families, and disrupted their sleep during the overnight hours. I respected those volunteers who were dedicated to protecting the welfare and safety of the residents.
That respect was affirmed by my support in ensuring that our Fire Department had the necessary equipment to do their difficult job. During my tenure as mayor, the village purchased a new pumper truck, ladder truck and ambulance. A mayor who allegedly had a vendetta against his department could simply have deferred these very expensive purchases, and instead patched the equipment together. However, I supported our Fire Department with my yes vote to get them these critical pieces of equipment.
One of my other primary responsibilities was to ensure that public tax dollars and donations were not diverted by employees on my watch for personal gain. Unfortunately, I found that evidence existed that certain members of the fire department were engaging in this activity. This first came to my attention when I became aware that funds that had been donated to the Fire Department, were instead being diverted to the Westfield Firemen's Exempt Association, and then possibly being used for purposes unrelated to firefighting or emergency medical services.
Additionally, I began attending meetings that were supposed to be Westfield Fire Department meetings. As these meetings progressed it became impossible to determine if these meetings were for the Westfield Fire Department, or the Westfield Firemen's Exempt Association. It had become clear to me and the Village Board that funds donated by the public to the Fire Department were instead being diverted to the Firemen's Exempt Association, and then being used for suspicious purchases.
It was at this time the Village Board decided the situation had grown beyond our investigative capabilities, and we sought outside investigative assistance. I then called the state Comptroller's Office and requested they conduct an investigation and audit of funds. This request was made in order to hold the Fire Department accountable, and to increase transparency, so that residents of the village and town of Westfield would feel secure knowing that their hard earned money was being spent on their Fire Department, rather than being diverted elsewhere for personal gain.
The following information regarding the audit was obtained directly from that report. It states:
"There is a lack of oversight and review of disbursements. The Department allows three individuals to manage Department bank accounts. The Department treasurer managed the accounts for the foreign fire insurance funds, the memorial fund, and the emergency first-aid squad funds. A second individual manages the bell jar and games of chance accounts, and a third individual manages the bingo account. Records have been destroyed , missing, or otherwise unavailable to support certain disbursements. We also found payments were not authorized prior to disbursement, debit cards were used by Department members, and receipts were not issued as required by the Departments by-laws. There was no indication that an audit of any of the Department's financial records occurred, or that an audit committee was established by the Department to annually review the Treasurer's records.
"Additionally, we found there is an informal relationship between the Department and an external not-for-profit organization, (firemen's exempt association), which resulted in portions of the Department's meeting minutes being altered, or not made available for our review. In addition, the Department's name was being used in fundraising activities by this not-for-profit organization.
"With respect to the fire companies we found that all three lacked documentation of disbursements, and any indication that requests for payments were approved by both the President and the Secretary prior to disbursement. Duplicate receipts were not issued for money's collected, so officials could not ensure that all money's were deposited in the respective bank accounts, and officials indicated that cash was withheld from deposits and used to pay expenses. There was no indication anyone reviewed any of the three Treasurer's records. We found that the financial operations of the Department were very poorly run and documented."
Further into the report it was found that $1,616 in 2010, and $1,000 in 2011 was used to pay for repairs to a facility owned by the Westfield Firemen's Exempt Association. In the audit of the bingo operations it was found they were handled by a person who was not the Department treasurer, an apparent violation of the Department's by-laws. There was also no indication that a Form 1099 was filed with the IRS.
Page 8 of the comptroller's report covered the Memorial and Emergency First Aid squads. Memorial and Emergency First Aid Squad disbursements totaled $10,778 in 2010, and $9,100 in 2011. Except for the disbursements by the village treasurer, none of these disbursements had supporting documentation to determine whether they were appropriate uses of the Memorial or Emergency First-Aid Squad funds, including three cash withdrawals and transfers made from the Memorial savings account during 2011 and 2012 totaling $1,226. Additionally, there were no duplicate receipts or supporting documentation for deposits so Department officials were not in a position to ensure that deposits were made timely and intact.
State law regarding Fire Departments specifically states: the Village Board is in control of a fire department located primarily in the village unless the village is part of a joint fire district. When a village board administers the fire department, a "fire council" assists in that administration. The Village Board may designate the administration of the fire department to a separate board called "The Board of Fire Commissioners" in which case there will be no fire council.
Herein lies the problem that has existed. For too many years prior, village administrations have ignored any problems and has allowed the "fire council" to run the entire operation. For 30 or more years, the members of the fire council were also officers in the Firemen's Exempt Association.
The Board of Fire Commissioners was formed after three members of the Fire Department came to the mayor and Village Board requesting their help to correct some of the problems that existed. I appointed Barry Underwood as chairman of the Board of Fire Commissioners as he had several years of experience as a member of the department. I also named a member of the Village Board, and I requested the town of Westfield to have representation on the board as they also pay the village for fire service. I also suggested that a neutral person be appointed that was agreeable to all parties.
The purpose of the Board of Fire Commissioners was to oversee all operations of the Department. It was doomed to failure from the inception because a majority of the members of the Fire Department did not want anyone who did not belong to the department looking into their operations. In addition, the Westfield town supervisor was also opposed to it.
Following the decision last month by a 3-2 vote of the Village Board to dissolve the Board of Fire Commissioners, one vocal member of the Fire Department stated, "WE WON!" If this attitude prevails, and the finger-pointing continues, it will be business as usual at the Westfield Fire Department. What this means is a core group of five-six members of the Fire Department who want to control everything connected to the department, will continue their unethical practices.
Having been a resident of the village for 55 years I have made friends with several members of the Fire Department, so I know what is going on and what is being said. It is time for some members of the Fire Department to quit blaming the problems on others, and have the courage and intestinal fortitude to realize that they are the problem.
I believe now that with new officers being installed, who have previous experience and knowledge of how the Department functions, and with help from other forward thinking members, they can turn the Department in the right direction. It is now time for that core group who was soundly chastised in the comptroller's report to step aside, and let the new generation of firefighters manage the department's operation.
David L. Carr is a Westfield resident.