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Westfield residents question fire commission’s role

January 16, 2014
By Connie O’Connor - Correspondent , Westfield Republican / Mayville Sentinel News

WESTFIELD - The Westfield Board of Fire Commissioners' role came into question during a joint meeting last week.

A brief regular meeting of the board was followed by the joint meeting of the BOFC, the fire department, the village board and members of the public.

The meeting was chaired by Westfield Mayor Mike VandeVelde. The stated agenda was to begin to resolve conflicts between the BOFC and the fire department.

"The BOFC was started without proper planning. The BOFC is writing their own rules, and that just doesn't work," said Judd Storms, a longtime member of the fire department and former chief, during the joint meeting.

The meeting was a result of the consulting committee report which came after the committee - led by a paid consultant - met in December to try to resolve the conflicts and bad feelings between the entities.

The mayor had announced that suspensions were not to be a part of the evening's discussions, but this proved to be a futile request.

At the formal BOFC meeting immediately preceding the joint meeting, acting Fire Chief William Bills stated that the department was still unable to pay outstanding bills because of the suspension of officers of the department. Chief Steve Pacanowski had been suspended by the BOFC along with Treasurer Jim Pacanowski on Nov. 5. In December, it was agreed that the acting chief and the secretary would have the power to pay bills, but later in the month, Secretary Marsha Holland was also suspended, making payment of bills problematic.

While details were not available, Holland said that the only reason she knew of for her suspension was a clerical error made in some meeting minutes.

Discussion at the joint meeting began with the comment that relationships had not improved since the formation of the consulting committee.

Ed Kneer, a department member for 45 years, commented that it was not possible to consider the relationship problems between the two entities without discussion of the suspensions. He said that the hearings for those who were suspended would be conducted by the same people who initiated the suspensions. He further pointed out that the village board, as an elected body, rightfully can control spending by the fire department. The BOFC, however, is not elected and their only role should be to facilitate the workings of the department.

Lyle Holland, a 40-year department member, pointed out that firefighters are volunteers. They give their time, and if they choose to do fundraising, it should not be under the control and supervision of the BOFC. Funds raised are used for the department, and there is no reason, according to Holland, to have the BOFC make rules for use of the funds.

Holland talked about the pride and commitment that had kept the department going strong for more than 100 years. She felt that the BOFC should be working to help the department, but instead, it is creating negative feelings, leading to lower morale among department members.

"We are volunteers," Jack Bills said. "If we have to go through 17 layers of red tape to buy toilet paper, I'll do something else."

"We have tried it, it's not working," he said of the BOFC.

BOFC Chair Barry Underwood spoke after many of the firefighters, saying the commission is working for love of the fire department.

"We were asked to do some things, and we have tried to do it," he said, adding that the goal wasn't to make everyone mad.

Underwood pointed out that he had served as a firefighter for 15 years, and that he too is working as a volunteer.

As the meeting adjourned, it seemed that there was at least a measure of consensus - that the mission of the BOFC and its role in the functioning of the fire department, as well as the role of the village board in its oversight of the department, needs to be precisely defined.



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