Concern has surfaced regarding a letter sent earlier this month by Second Lt. Patrick Turner, of the Kinney Hose Fire Co., to Butler Mayor Robert Alviene and the Borough Council.
The letter refers to Ordinance 2011-17, introduced in a Borough Council meeting on Sept. 20 and passed on Oct. 18. This ordinance expanded Chapter 21, "Standards of Efficiency" to now include "Levels of Membership."
The new ordinance requires firefighters to attend 50 percent of all department functions (alarm responses, drills, training, meetings, etc.). This was lowered from the previous requirement of 60 percent. The new ordinance also establishes four membership levels for firefighters:
- Members in Good Standing have full voting privileges and are eligible to receive accidental insurance and workers' compensation.
- Members in Good Standing/On Leave retain all privileges as above while remaining inactive for a specified time period (i.e. medical leave or college).
- Conditional Membership is a status for members who do not meet requirements for good standing. They have no voting rights or insurance, and cannot run for department office. After 12 consecutive months under this status, they will be removed from their role in the department.
- Associate Membership is for retired or disabled members. They have no voting rights. They are eligible for life insurance after 25 years of service in good standing.
Turner, a volunteer since 2002 with the Kinney Hose Co., said Fire Department Chief Jim Neill wrote the changes himself and sidestepped department protocol by taking the new ordinance to Borough Council without first showing it to the members.
"Jim Neill wrote it himself, and didn’t make it known to any of us until after he brought it to the mayor and town council. It was already read and voted after the first reading two weeks before it was given to anyone in the four companies," Turner said.
“When we do these ordinances, there are four chiefs and two members from each company, for a total of 12 at the meeting. It’s always been done this way.”
Alviene told Patch he couldn't comment about the letter until the council has completed a review.
In response to the letter and Turner's comments, Neill told Patch there is no official department protocol for changing an ordinance. He said it needed to be updated from 2008.
“It was purely management decisions, and Kinney Hose somehow feels that they were duped," Neill said. "Mary O’Keefe, the clerk, sent it as a courtesy and it was misinterpreted. It got completely out of control by that company."
Turner's letter stated that members first discussed the ordinance at a monthly department meeting held on Sept. 26, when they were asked to read it and bring up questions at the department's next meeting in October.
The letter reads, in part:
“It was brought up in the October Department meeting, on October 10, 2011, and there were so many questions and objections that a motion was made and seconded, and voted upon by the membership to create a committee to explore the ordinance and recommend changes.”
Turner said a dispute developed at the committee meeting.
“We were told there’s no way things are gonna change, even though the majority of people at the meeting wanted it reviewed by the membership and have due process," Turner said. "The company was told by Chief Jim Neill that he was going to disband our company. He suspended our chief, who now can’t run in the election.”
Kinney Hose Co.'s Fire Chief Earl Dean was accused in March of official misconduct. Dean was charged with second-degree official misconduct, third-degree tampering with public records and fourth-degree falsifying or tampering with records.
“Suspending their company—we never talked about that. It was talked about 15 or 16 years ago," Neill said. "The council had drafted an ordinance to get rid of them. I wasn’t involved with it. Their chief is expelled. The council removed their chief. I had nothing to do with that. There’s case history on that."
Neill said the changes in the ordinance make it easier to be a Butler firefighter.
"This ordinance is good for us," he said. "It relaxes the 60 percent attendance, follows a 50 percent to keep up your membership. It gives you two years if you have any kind of problem to make back up, to still remain a member. It allows firemen a nine-month period for personal leave, with the ability to return to duty, like college kids who go away, etcetera. It gives life insurance to members who have 25 years.
"The flip side is that it follows state guidelines for guys who want to become officers of the fire department, and also asks if you’re out sick, that when you return, you bring a doctor’s note," he said.
Neill said the new ordinance addresses the changing needs of the department's members.
"Everybody’s needs are constantly changing," Neill said. "We’ve got guys that need to be out. We never addressed the college kids and it was 60 percent or you’re out. We all have times in our life when the fire department is not our mainstay. It doesn’t put a roof over your head. It’s a duty in life. We tried to better everything so it's an even playing field for all four companies."
Turner said Neill purposely avoided showing the ordinance to the members, saying in his letter:
“When bringing up potential changes to the ordinance, the members of Kinney Hose were threatened with disbanding of the company, and Chief Barry was called every name in the book by Jim Neil [sic]. Jim Neil [sic] knew that a majority of the membership did not want this ordinance to go through without it being reviewed by the membership. He did nothing to stop the ordinance, as asked by the membership. He has his own agenda and it is not one and the same with a majority of the membership. These are not the actions of an honorable man and these are not that actions of anyone I would be proud to call my chief.”
“The back handed [sic] way this ordinance was railroaded through without the knowledge of the membership, is an offense to democracy itself, and should be set aside until such time the ordinance is reviewed by a proper committee and have its due process in the membership of the department.”
The letter further discussed repairs needed on Butler Engine 341 for an inoperative door and window, broken emergency warning lights, missing fire extinguishers and bald rear tires.
According to his letter:
“Lists of needed repairs have been given to [Neill] at least three times by me personally. The response we have been given by Jim Neil [sic] is 'I will work on it.' Another response we were given was 'I'll take the truck out of service. There are plenty of trucks from other fire departments that will come here.' This last response perturbs me. It shows a lack of interest in the safety of the members of The Kinney Hose Company, and could be used as evidence of a personal vendetta against us.”
Capt. John Futcher, of Pequannock Engine & Hose Co., disagreed with Turner's letter.
"The thing that really pissed me off was that in the ordinance meeting, it says that [Pequannock's Fire] Chief [Pete] Barry was called every name in the book. That didn’t happen. These people weren’t even at the meeting," Futcher said.
"In reference to the repairs they say haven’t been done—I was here one day when they were fixing that truck. They fixed the door handles. They fixed the air ride seat that was broken. They got two new front tires this year, months before this letter was out. All the engines except for 4-4 got new tires put on the front end of their trucks, and two engines are getting rear tires put on them. You can’t believe everything you read."
Turner's letter also requested a fuel expense report from 2010 through October 2011 regarding personal use of borough vehicles by Neill and Bartholdi Hose Co. Chief John Ryan.
“We do not feel the taxpayers of the Borough should foot the bill for Jim Neil [sic] and John Ryan to use Borough vehicles and Borough fuel for personal use.…From what we were told by Jim Neil [sic], the purpose of this ordinance is to save the Borough money, a great start would be the ending of the practice of the personal use of Borough Incident Command vehicles, by Jim Neil [sic] and John Ryan.… I have to pay the Federal Mileage Expense rate, which at this time is $0.50 per mile. They both should be back charged for every personal mile they have driven during this time period, at the Federal Mileage Expense Rate, to relieve the burden to the taxpayer."
The letter asks for Neill to be disqualified from running in the next election.
“We feel Jim Neil [sic], needs to be disqualified from running in this year's Chiefs election, for blatant abuse of power and jeopardizing the safety of the membership, allowing an underage child to respond with him in an emergency vehicle to fire calls, abuse of Borough equipment, using Borough vehicles for personal business and allowing his differences with certain individuals to cloud his judgment. These actions are so egregious, that We also feel Jim Neil [sic] should be suspended from his duties of Department Chief, for the remainder of his term, and the most qualified Chief should assume the duties of Department Chief. Since there is such a short time until the next election, which is scheduled for December 4, 2011, this is the only sensible alternative and we would like prompt action by the Mayor and Council to be taken."
Neill said the upcoming election for chief was the motivation for Turner's letter.
"In a nutshell, two words: election year. Chief selection is up, and one company doesn’t have power, it becomes a brouhaha," Neill said. "Every two years we get elected. The four companies vote. Out of the four company chiefs, one becomes main chief. We go through this every two years."
Turner said his reasons for writing the letter were not related to politics.
"Neill didn't follow procedure," Turner said. "We want the ordinance to be reviewed and not have it pushed through by one member. And I just want the firetruck to be safe."
Turner said the letter represents the views of the majority of members in the department. He said he did not want to bring the issues out in public, but felt he needed to in the interest of tradition and standards of safety.
"I wanted to do this a peaceful, easy way, without getting everyone involved," Turner said. "In firefighting, there are traditions. We’ve been this way and coexisted for over 100 years, since 1903. We don’t want to change."
However, other fire department members told Patch they were not in agreement with the letter, and said it shouldn't have been made public.
"They should get the facts straight before they do that," said Allison Sliker, of Keil Hook & Ladder Co. "It was embarrassing for the whole department."
"I don’t agree with it. It should never have gone publicly," he said. "Even if the letter was correct, it shouldn’t have gone. It just makes the department look bad. Anybody and everybody can see that letter. I just think it should have been reviewed by the fire department."
Futcher felt the new ordinance was an improvement from the previous one.
"The’re actually making it better for the firemen," he said. "They’re lowering percentage rates that you have to maintain. It allows associate members to have insurance when before they didn’t have insurance. [Neill]'s not saying anyone has to leave the department, and he’s just generalizing an active fireman and an inactive fireman. It now matches the state statute 50 percent."
Turner said the timing shows that Neill is looking to improve his chances to win the upcoming election. Under the new ordinance, his son, a college student, will be eligible to vote. According to Turner, the election results can come down to just a few votes.
"Why was the ordinance passed on the 18th of October? Why wouldn't you wait until after the election"? Turner asked.
Neill said he felt disrespected by the letter.
"In that letter, they didn’t address me as chief," he said. "There’s no respect in that letter. Most of my guys were laughing about it. People that don’t participate have the most to say, unfortunately."
Neill said he has already met with the council. Turner said he has not been called to speak to the council, which surprised him.
"I expected they would have asked," Turner said. "I'm afraid it's gonna get brushed under the rug."