Saturday, August 30, 2014

New Jersey Fire Districts are obscure and in need of more transparency.

There is presently a lawsuit pending in Ocean County Superior Court by a firefighter who claims he was improperly expelled by Silverton Volunteer Fire Department, which is within Toms River Fire District No. 2 in Ocean County.  In his lawsuit, which is on-line here, George Peters alleged that he was expelled by a 31 to 2 vote arrived at by a secret ballot cast at the July 14, 2011 Silverton Volunteer Fire Department meeting.

He claimed that the vote, which resulted from an expulsion motion being made by Ken Taylor, who was then served as a District No. 2 Fire Commissioner as well as a Silverton member, violated the Department's bylaws.  The lawsuit alleges that the motion and vote was in retaliation for Peters having raised the possibility that another firefighter, Gary Tattersall, lied on his membership application by falsely claiming that he was a United States citizen.

For readers who are not familiar, a Fire District is geographical area to which fire suppression services are provided.  The provision of these services is managed by board of five elected Fire Commissioners. Fire Districts have the power to levy a fire tax on  property owners in the district.  Districts use the tax money to provide for fire suppression services.  They may accomplish this by contracting with volunteer fire departments, paying career departments or a through a combination of volunteer and career firefighters.

On the third Saturday every February, there is a public election at which one or more Commissioners are elected and at which a budget is approved or defeated.  The Board of Fire Commissioners is a public body that periodically holds public meetings similarly to a town council.  

In New Jersey, Fire Districts often fly under the radar.  This is because relatively few people are aware that they reside within a fire district and know that they are able to participate in the fire elections.  In many cases, as in Toms River Fire District No. 2, the public polling places are the volunteer fire companies with which the Fire District contracts for fire services.  Accordingly, the members of the fire departments and their families are likely to be keenly aware of the elections while other citizens are not.

While it is admittedly a generalization, the present system often results in firefighters and their families, who attend the polls and Board meetings in a much greater proportion than average citizens, to be the main constituency to which the Board of Commissioners answers.  The relative obscurity of fire districts and their elections results in a cloistered environment where annual budgets in the millions of dollars (e.g. Toms River Fire District No. 2's 2014 budget is $3,256,082.75) are controlled by Commissioners who are elected by only a few hundred votes (e.g. approximately 440 ballots were cast in the Toms River Fire District No. 2's 2014 election.)

The net result is that fire districts are frequently run by people who are beholden to the interests of the fire service rather than to the community at large.  The insular nature of fire districts causes some commissioners and other district leaders to be referred to as "the good old boy network.”  See, e.g. "Lawsuit: Death threats made against secretary for reporting porn at fire district," Star Ledger, February 21, 2013 and "Ex-Franklin Twp. firefighter claims she was dismissed after sexual harassment complaint," Star Ledger, April 8, 2014.

Whether or not Toms River Fire District No. 2's leadership is a "good old boy network" or whether or not Mr. Peters' lawsuit is a manifistation of that type of network, is unclear.  What is clear is that the system needs to be amended so that those in charge of millions of dollars of taxpayers' money are more visible and thus more accountable to the voters and taxpayers.