BERLIN — The Berlin Fire Company (BFC) turned out in force at Tuesday’s meeting to petition the Mayor and Council to enter third-party mediation to resolve the ongoing dispute and to restore the roughly $600,000 funding stripped from the fire company earlier this year.
While the council said future mediation is possible, there are a number of conditions the town wants resolved before ever sitting down at a table with BFC leadership. However, even if funding is restored, the council has hinted that things will never go back to exactly the way they were.
“That mutual trust and respect will have to be earned,” Mayor Gee Williams told BFC members, associates and supporters at Tuesday night’s meeting.
Though not on the meeting’s agenda, more than a dozen BFC members stood in the back of the room in their dress uniforms while their leaders repeatedly asked the Mayor and Council to agree to a private meeting in the future.
“All we beg you to do is talk to us,” said BFC attorney Joe Moore.
According to Moore, his main goal throughout the entire ordeal between the town and BFC has been to bring both parties into a room together in front of an unbiased litigator. Moore told the council that he would even be willing to allow the town to choose the mediator, the time and the location.
“Name it and I’ll be there,” he said.
Several members of the BFC as well as family members echoed Moore.
“We’re coming here to make things whole for our community … We need your support. We’ve had it [before],” said BFC President David Fitzgerald.
Pete Cosby, a local attorney who told the council that he was speaking only as a citizen, claimed not to take a side in the disagreement but felt that a continued rift between the town and BFC benefitted no one.
“Please, sit down and talk,” he asked.
Citizen Amy Williams had a similar request and asserted that she “doesn’t know why there’s such animosity.”
Any acrimony that exists, answered Mayor Gee Williams, does not fall on the shoulders of the council.
“I think the message has been sent over and over for the Mayor and Council to go to hell,” the mayor said.
Accusations of misconduct and harassment among BFC employees date back to last February, at which time the council stepped in to perform an investigation, since some of the employees involved were technically paid by the council.
After an investigation and several subsequent meetings, Gee Williams reminded the fire company that no amicable solution could be reached.
“No matter what was agreed to, it was always backtracked,” he said, adding that the council was “basically flipped off.”
The mayor acknowledged that any mediation that happens will have to come from a third-party with no interest in the matter. However, before that can ever happen he said two conditions must be met. First, the town wants to wait to see if a lawsuit is filed against the BFC based on the accusations of harassment. If so, Gee Williams explained that the council will not want to negotiate with any of the members accused.
Secondly, Gee Williams asked the entire BFC to take a long, hard look “in the mirror” to decide if it’s happy with current leadership since he feels that the town has been met with “denial then defiance” from that end.
In fact, Gee Williams argued that sometimes it seemed like the company didn’t even have leadership.
“From our perspective no one is running the fire department,” he said.
The council’s conditions didn’t sit well with the audience.
“It’s not up to you to decide those [leaders] aren’t good enough,” Kim Holloway, the wife of a BFC member, told the council.
In her opinion, the town attempting to interfere with company leadership is “discrimination.”
On Wednesday, Fitzgerald drove home the point the mayor does not get to choose who represents the BFC as he doesn’t get to decide who the council appoints to taxpayer-funded town posts.
“The mayor doesn’t get to choose who the officers are of the fire company, just as I don’t get to choose who the town staff are, but we all have to work together for the public. It’s not about me, it’s not about the mayor. It’s about serving the public,” Fitzgerald said.
While the meeting had begun cordial enough, it did grow heated as the night continued.
At one point, Amy Williams accused Councilwoman Lisa Hall of not taking the discussion seriously and demanded to know the specific contents of notes Hall was exchanging with other council members. Hall, who recently had a surgery affecting her voice, eventually left the room in a frustrated manner and did not return to council chambers.
Kim Holloway later said she believes Hall was acting disrespectful to the BFC by passing notes while a serious discussion was taking place between the town and the BFC. She said it’s no secret Hall often passes notes to colleagues while council business is being conducted and it agitated BFC representatives in attendance at the meeting, leading audience members to question her intentions.
The criticism of Hall and her former relationship with the BFC isn’t the only bad blood that has come about from the schism between the town and the company. In October, the mayor accused the fire department of spearheading an “ambush” during the town election by campaigning collectively for a write-in candidate. It is a charge that the fire department has denied, citing a history of official political neutrality.
The council made it clear Tuesday that it believes the BFC is in no immediate danger of funding trouble and Gee Williams said that the earliest the town might come to mediation is Jan. 1. He reiterated the council’s desire to see if accusations against the BFC come out in court. Company leadership will also continue to be monitored.
Fitzgerald said the mayor continues to make accusations that the BFC will soon be facing a legal battle when it’s actually the town that is currently embroiled in a lawsuit.
“We will reiterate the Berlin Fire Company is not involved in any lawsuits. The lawsuit by the former EMS employee supervisor is against the town of Berlin, not against the Berlin Fire Company. We are not involved in a legal process. We are not being sued by anybody. The mayor keeps insinuating we are going to be but I can’t go on we might be sued,” Fitzgerald said on Wednesday.
On Wednesday, Fitzgerald expressed disappointment in the way the meeting went.
“We went there with open arms and to request for at least the third time to meet with an independent, qualified mediator and to restore the funding. Cutting the funding off doesn’t help anyone. That’s a spiteful thing,” he said. “There is no question these funding cuts are detrimental. We have had to cut back vehicle maintenance. We put used tires on a vehicle the other week. We have never done that before, but we did it to save that money. In the short term, you will not see anything, but this will catch up with us.”
Despite the ongoing controversy with the council, Fitzgerald said it’s important for the community to feel safe.
“We told the Mayor and Council last night we are committed to the community. We have been here for 102 years. We are a stable part of the community and we will continue to be. Our members are not presently discouraged. They are getting up and going on calls,” he said. “Are they getting discouraged? Yes. They didn’t join the fire company for all this animosity. They joined the fire company to serve the public. That’s why our motto is ‘Service To Others.’