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‘Special Meeting’ of the Board of Selectmen Via Zoom Tonight, Nov. 18th, 5pm, Re: Forming a NEW ‘Fire Department Commission’ Among Controversy; DTC ‘Endorsements to Fill Vacancies’ Discussed

Report by Paula Antolini, November 18, 2020, 1:18PM EDT

There is another “Special Meetingof the Board of Selectmen via Zoom App tonight, November 18, 2020, at 5pm, access meeting here:

Video/ Teleconference video link: https://zoom.us/j/7360902790
One tap mobile
1.646.558.8656,7360902790# US (New York)
Materials can be viewed at: https://www.bethel-ct.gov/content/117/478/20785.aspx

A G E N D A
1) Call to order/Pledge of Allegiance
2) Consideration of Democratic Town Committee endorsements to fill vacancies
3) Consideration of Fire Department Commission

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“Consideration of Democratic Town Committee endorsements to fill vacancies” will also be discussed. Nicholas W. Vitti Jr., Bethel Democratic Town Committee Chair, wrote a letter to the Board of Selectmen via electronic mail, dated November 17, 2020. It reads in part:

“At a meeting of the Bethel Democratic Town Committee on November 16, 2020, we endorsed the following name for appointment to fill the following vacancies:
• Nicholas Vitti Jr. – Economic Development Commission;
• Ken Kopec -Insurance & Pension Commission; and
• Pat Orsino -Ethics Commission.
Please place this endorsement on an upcoming agenda for your consideration.”

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Note the last item on the agenda is to discuss forming a new “Fire Department Commission.” You might want to attend this important meeting to see a discussion of whether or not they should have a committee at all, and why, and if so, who is appointed to this committee and what are their responsibilities.

According to the July 7, 2020 regular Board of Selectman meeting minutes, Selectman Szatkowski asked to add establishment of an Ordinance for a “Fire Commission” to the agenda. First Selectman Knickerbocker made a motion, which was seconded by Selectman Szatkowski to add “Consideration of Fire Commission Ordinance” to the agenda. Discussion ensued. Vote, all in favor, motion approved unanimously. Consideration of Fire Commission Ordinance: Selectman Szatkowski made a motion, which was seconded by First Selectman Knickerbocker to create a commission to oversee the purchase of capital equipment, including all fire equipment. Discussion ensued and the item was tabled until more information is gathered.

A “Fire Commission Proposal to the Board of Selectmen” draft was submitted on “October 8, 2020, revised Nov. 9, 2020” to the board. “See additions in red type, TG [Tom Galliford] comments in orange.” it reads.

The proposal reads as follows:

PROPOSAL

The Town of Bethel intends to create a Board of Fire Commissioners, which would be a new organ within town government. The Commission would be established as an ordinance of Town Code by the Board of Selectmen, following a public hearing as specified in Town Charter. Members of said Commission would be appointed by the Board of Selectmen to serve multi-year terms in a manner to be determined.

(This should be incorporated within the current EMS Commission to reduce redundancy of two Commissions of similar advisory intent) The Powers and Duties in that Ordinance is very clear on what that Commission is supposed to do and require from the FD in terms of EMS.

*Recognition of the FD’s as Town Agencies: Need to include statements that the two volunteer FDs are the definitive agencies to provide fire, rescue, hazardous material, and EMS services and are an agency of the Town of Bethel and shall abide by the rules/regulations and policies as are established from time to time. Such as Equal Employment, discrimination, harassment policies, etc… This was an issue during a lawsuit concerning the LOSAP that argued the Stony Hill FD was not a Town agency therefore
may not be represented by town counsel- although the LOSAP was completely funded by TOB monies

SAMPLE WORDING: “”The Bethel Volunteer Fire Department Inc and the Stony Hill Volunteer Fire Company Inc are herby established as the two authoritative Fire Departments to provide fire, rescue, hazardous material, and EMS services in the Town of Bethel.

The existing volunteer fire companies shall continue as operating entities and shall function as constituent units of the Town. The Human Resources policies and procedures of the Town of Bethel shall be followed by
the Departments…”” *Statement that the Fire Chiefs shall report to the Commission and/or First Selectman ….

PURPOSE

The Fire Commission (“Commission”) will serve as an advisory board to the Board of Selectmen. The Commission will be responsible for reviewing and making recommendations on purchases and operational funding for the Town of Bethel’s volunteer fire companies. The duties and responsibilities of the Commission will be as follows:

 Long-term capital budget planning, with a future horizon of at least ten years, including, but not limited to building maintenance planning, future apparatus acquisitions and other capital equipment needs, such as communication equipment, turn-out gear, SCBA gear, hoses and any other equipment that meets the criteria to qualify as a capital purchase.

 Annual operational budget planning; presentation to boards of Selectmen and Finance.

 The Commission chairperson shall have the responsibility of presenting the comprehensive operating and capital budgets to the joint meeting of the boards of Selectmen and Finance.

(Budgets currently are two separate ones for each FD, would they be combined into one? If so how would this be handled with two different orgs/Chiefs?)

 Ensuring vehicle maintenance and repair records are retained according to law.

 Ensuring assets of the Town of Bethel are cataloged and reported accurately to the town
finance department.

 Review of annual operational and capital budget requests and recommendations on same to Board of Selectmen.

The commission shall have responsibility of presenting annual
budget requests to the boards of Selectmen and Finance.

COMMISSION MEMBERSHIP

The Commission shall be comprised of five members, as follows:

 One member of the Board of Selectmen.

 Members at large to be appointed by the Board of Selectmen (4)

 Appointments to the Commission are subject to the provisions of the Minority Party Representation laws, consistent with state law and town charter.

NOTE: Current members of the volunteer fire companies are not precluded from serving on the Commission, subject appointment by the Board of Selectmen.

(Need a definitive policy – what if a member of one FD is on the board and not one from the other? Should it be policy that a member of each FD always be on the Board or not at all).

The Fire Chief of each Department or designee shall attend the Commission meetings to give a report on operations and provide info to the Commission as requested. Similar to how the Police Commission gets a Chiefs report each meeting.

ELIGIBILITY FOR FUNDING FOR VOLUNTEER FIRE AND AMBULANCE COMPANIES

The Town of Bethel and its volunteer fire and ambulance companies mutually recognize and agree that close coordination, mutual long-term planning, sound operational and financial management and full transparency are essential components to ensuring public safety. All parties
recognize that the safety operations of the Town, the fire companies, the police department and the fire and ambulance dispatching system require teamwork, transparency and coordination between all parties. While recognizing that they are incorporated as independent agencies for
operational purposes, the volunteer fire and ambulance companies shall be considered to be an integral function of town government.

Therefore, to be eligible to receive public funding, the volunteer fire and ambulance/EMT companies shall agree to the following conditions:

(monthly vs quarterly vs bi monthly- due to time/management as volunteers??)

 Submit fire and ambulance/EMS call reports to the town finance department monthly, with simultaneous copies to the Fire Commission.

 Submit expense reports to finance department monthly.

 Submit status reports of vehicle maintenance and repairs to finance department quarterly,

with simultaneous copies to the Fire Commission.

 Submit all financial records as required by the finance department related to the Town’s Comprehensive Annual Finance Report, including all records for

fire, emergency services, paramedic and ambulance operations.

 Submit an annual report to the Commission to include call volumes/types summary, budget expenses overview, membership summary, future goals etc..

TIMELINE FOR ADOPTION OF ORDINANCE
 Initial presentation to Board of Selectmen Oct 20, 2020
 Consideration by BOS; adjustments, deliberations Nov 4 (Special Meeting)
 Consideration, vote by BOS Nov 17
 Drafting of ordinance Month of December
 Public Hearing Jan 5, 2021
 Adjustments to ordinance, if needed Jan 11 (Special Meeting)
 Adoption by BOS Jan 19

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This issue of the purchase of the new aerial ladder truck has been a point of contention for over the last year or more, ever since First Selectman Knickerbocker indicated mistrust between the Bethel Fire Department and the Town of Bethel, Board of Selectmen and possibly the Fire Apparatus Committee, regarding the purchase or replacement of a new Aerial Ladder Truck. Read more here.

You could say Knickerbocker threw the fire department officials “under the bus” (ladder truck!) in his comment about the issue last July 1, 2020, at a meeting of the “Fire Apparatus Committee” (FAC), where the committee members continued to discuss the decision of the Bethel aerial ladder truck repair or replacement for the Bethel Fire Department on South Street. View mark 3:29 here or mark 10:45 to go directly to Knickerbocker’s statement in a video of that meeting. Knickerbocker seems to be taking many statements out of context and does not mention the lengthy FD reports that WERE presented.

The following statement was made by Knickerbocker, despite the Bethel Advocate repeatedly asking Knickerbocker why the Town of Bethel and/or the BOS was delaying remedying a non-working aerial ladder truck with timely replacement, thus putting many lives in jeopardy. These inquiries went on from the fall of 2019 to the summer of 2020 and beyond, basically being ignored. Even direct statements at realtime meetings were never addressed then, or at subsequent meetings, which seems to be the pattern for many boards, commissions and committees in Bethel for many years now.

Knickerbocker stated, “We’ve been without a truck in service, and had to rely on mutual aid, for many months, and I think there has to be some very serious conversations about how to move forward, how to insure public safety, and how to insure that we’re working together as partners and a team, in an atmosphere of mutual trust.” So it seems his solution is to possibly appoint OTHER people to decide recommendations for purchases for the FD, with this new commission. This is what is being discussed tonight, and by the way, the meeting is being held online at a time when most people are at work, at 5pm, when they cannot sit and watch a Zoom meeting. Why was that earlier time chosen especially if it is on Zoom?

The issue of a non-working aerial truck has gone on since before the October 2019 BOS meeting, when the fire department was realizing the equipment was unreliable and required constant repair, leaving the town without a working aerial ladder truck for most of that time, while the dispute lingered. They were uncomfortable putting their volunteers on trucks that could fail in an emergency, they stated at many meetings. Besides the possible ladder failure, the fire department officials mentioned things like the fire truck actually tipping over and injuring fire fighters or civilians. This also put citizens’ and fire fighter volunteers’ lives in danger unnecessarily, as they would have to rely on mutual aid when going on fire calls, which could take a precious ten minutes of time before mutual aid arrived, important minutes when someone is in peril.

The Board of Selectmen and the Fire Appartus Committee did not see it as such an urgent matter, as shown by extending the meetings from October 2019 to the fall of 2020. The issue went on for 11 months, meeting after meeting, leaving the town without a working aerial ladder truck for all of that time, while the dispute lingered.

The ad-hoc Fire Apparatus Committee, appointed by the BOS, consisted of members as follows: Chairman Richard Thode, Peter Valenti, Ralph Nathanson, Robert Dibble and Fred Ingram. They, along with several members of Bethel Fire & EMS, did a personal inspection of the present aerial ladder truck on January 11, 2020.

The Fire Apparatus Committee discussing the inspection of the aerial ladder truck in January
2020, in the parking lot of Bethel High School. Shown in center with plaid shirt, facing the camera, is committee Chairman Richard Thode.

The Fire Apparatus Committee inspecting the aerial ladder truck in January 2020, at the Bethel Fire & EMS fire station on South Street.

The Fire Apparatus Committee inspecting the aerial ladder truck in January 2020, at the Bethel High School parking lot.

Richard E. Thode, Chairman of the Bethel Fire Apparatus Committee, wrote a letter to Knickerbocker on August 5, 2020, (view letter here) basically detailing a timeline of actions taken by all concerned parties. Knickerbocker agreed with the statements in the letter.

Instead of recommending the purchase of a new fire truck (truck chassis and aerial ladder) the Board of Selectmen and the Bethel Fire Apparatus Committee visibly fought a battle of words against what the Bethel Fire Department was recommending based on an extensive and detailed report by their engineer Bill Cadella, (view report here) and others in the FD, basically detailing the reasons for difficulty in obtaining replacement parts, or people to even want to work on the equipment. The list of repairs was long in order to bring the equipment up to code and get it in working order again.

The Bethel Fire Apparatus Committee recommended (view letter to Knickerbocker from Thode here) and was approved by, the Board of Selectmen, to spend thousands of dollars repairing the 42-year-old ladder on the 11-year-old truck, estimated at about $11,000 then, before the final figures were in. The Final bill was $13,978.67, but the truck will likely need replacement in a FEW YEARS, said Chairman Thode.

The following is a partial report from the “timeline” submitted by Thode:

June 5, 2020 – Shipman’ s takes the Tower to their Waterford, CT repair facility.
June 19, 2020 – Shipman’ s provides a quote for repairs in the area of $11,000 dollars.
July 1, 2020 – Tower is repaired, Third party, independent testing company test truck and recertifies both the tower and water pump.
July 6, 2020 – Truck is returned to town and placed back in service.
July 16, 2020 – Final bill of $13,978.67 is submitted for repairs and certification testing.
July 21, 2020 – Thode, via Zoom, gives verbal report to Board of Selectmen
August 5, 2020 – Committee approves final report

Interestingly, in this same letter to Knickerbocker, Thode admitted the aerial ladder truck would need replacing “within a few years also once again, leaving people of the Town of Bethel without a reliable aerial ladder truck in the additional year it takes to manufacture a new one. Thode said, “Even though the current Aerial Tower is repaired and in service, the Town of Bethel must begin to make financial plans to replace the truck within a few years, The Town should also consider that Fire Apparatus are custom made. Once the decision is made to go ahead with the purchase, it may take up to a year for the apparatus to be delivered.”

So why didn’t the Town of Bethel and Board of Selectmen just go ahead and purchase a new aerial ladder truck immediately, and save the thousands of dollars in repair costs that would only last “a few years”?

Chief Scott Murphy was contacted for comment and we await his full response to our questions. He did state, “I have talked with Chief Thode and we agree the repairs will give us a fully functional ladder truck that will need to be replaced down the next few years.” This is a completely different Murphy than we saw at the Board of Selectman meetings fighting for a new truck.

To add insult to injury, Thode then wrote a letter on August 5, 2020, to Mr. Steve Audette at the Sutphen Corporation, lavishing praise on their handling of the repair of the aerial ladder truck, after the Bethel Fire Department indicated repeated problems with that company in the past.

Personally witnessing what happened here at meetings and at the aerial ladder truck inspection in Bethel, I can only surmise this is a power struggle for control between grown men (and women too, if you include the FD as a whole, but the immediate boards/committees were all male, and so were the report presenters and decision makers) and the people of Bethel are the losers in this game.

Shame on Knickerbocker, Thode and all the people on the Bethel Fire Apparatus Committee who put forth this charade, to win a personal battle of wits at the expense (life and financial) of Bethel citizens, it seems.

Now at tonight’s meeting they want to discuss extending this game and possibly decide to appoint a hand chosen “Fire Department Commission” instead of letting the Bethel Fire Departments retain control and oversee the purchase of capital equipment, including all fire equipment, and funding for volunteer fire and ambulance companies. How will that go?

So now the Board of Selectmen is saying that a hand-chosen committee is more “trustworthy” than the detailed reports and recommendations of the hard working volunteer administrators, fire fighters and EMTs, and the tremendous amount of years of experience they bring actually using the equipment and fighting fires in Bethel and surrounding towns? It appears that way.

What is going on here? You need to pay close attention. (By the way there have been numerous almost immediate approvals of other expensive town equipment over the last year, once by the Board of Finance and Board pf Selectmen without knowing the total cost ahead of time, which the Board of Selectmen then also approved. Double standard? Watch for my upcoming report.)

Attend tonight’s meeting and voice your opinion.

There will be a public hearing sometime in January 2021, on the forming of a new Fire Commission, so follow along and have your questions and comments ready for public input at the hearing.

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