Several members of the Harford County Council struck back Tuesday night at County Executive David Craig's decision to retract the bill that would have created a fire and emergency service commission.
Meanwhile, Craig has delayed indefinitely an announcement about a new public safety plan he had said he would be proposing, a spokesman for the county executive said Thursday.
With many fire and EMS officials in the audience at Tuesday's council meeting, Council President Billy Boniface and Councilmen Joe Woods and Jim McMahan defended the fire and EMS service and praised the volunteer emergency responders.
Boniface criticized Craig's assertion last week that the Harford County Fire & EMS Association's amendments gutted the bill. The association wanted to require that more of their members be on the commission.
The council felt "very strongly" that the county code heavily referred to the association throughout the document, and referred to the group as a key administrator in the process, Boniface said.
"To not include them in the process in a major way would be going against what is currently the law of Harford County. We take that seriously as legislators and that is our guiding role," Boniface said.
He also said, however, that the council fully recognizes the source of the problem is the "antiquated code" the county has.
He said the council plans to provide guidance on how to revamp the code, and hopes Craig and emergency providers continue to work together.
Boniface also compared the various fire and EMS officials and agencies to the many different aspects of the horse industry, with which he is involved, and said they must come together despite their different roles.
While getting wrapped up in power plays, "you forget that you are all after the same thing," he said, adding that volunteers come together every day and set their differences aside.
He subtly challenged first responders to consider Craig's position as well.
"I know the county executive is frustrated with the process," he said. "At the end of the day, what the county executive wants to accomplish is the same thing: provide the best fire and EMS [service] for this county as he can possibly do."
"We want to see you work together. It has been a good relationship in the past," Boniface continued.
"Let's sit in a room and let's work something out," he said. "We are ready to move forward and move beyond this. Hopefully you are, too."
Woods, a volunteer with the Fallston fire company and the company's former chief, was wearing his firefighter's uniform as he defended the volunteers.
"One of the most humble and selfless things I have ever done was join the volunteer fire company," Woods said, explaining he feels it is very important to make sure all parties are involved in the fire commission bill.
Woods said he had the impression last week that the stakeholders were going to come to an agreement and was "very shocked" that the county executive was pulling the bill "after all that work."
"I am still committed to the fire service and still willing to make sure we all work together, and the county executive and fire service can all come together," he said. "We are all willing to do whatever it takes."
He also said to the county officials in the room: "Please take it back to the county executive: We are willing to work with you."
"We have a great system. We have excellent people, top-trained people in the state, and it's a service that can't go away," Woods said.
Jim McMahan held up a Bel Air Volunteer Fire Company button he said was from a fire chief at Aberdeen Proving Ground.
"It's a symbol of pride to me. My father had one just like it," McMahan said. "What it represents has never failed a citizen in need."
McMahan said the volunteer service is as strong today as ever.
"Can it be improved? Sure. It's not broke," he said.
Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti simply asked everyone to remember that despite their passions for specific issues, everyone must work together.
"I hope we all put aside all those things that have happened over some of those days, weeks, months," she said, adding that tomorrow, a siren will go off and someone will respond to yet another person in need or be dispatched to a robbery or a person with a heart attack.
After the meeting, association president Bill Dousa said he would continue to work with Craig and serve Harford County.
"We will continue to provide our services. We will continue to operate as we do, until things change," he said.
Asked for his reaction to Craig's accusation that fire leaders tried to turn the bill into a political issue, Dousa said: "I am apolitical."
"If the county is willing to work with us on operations and make services better, we are willing to work with them," he said.
He also disagreed with Craig's assertion that a fire and EMS commission should not have too many representatives from the association.
Dousa said the association made a spreadsheet showing that nearly all Maryland jurisdictions that have such a commission, have plenty of representation from a fire and EMS association on the commission.
During his press conference Monday when he criticized the council and the fire and EMS association, Craig had said he would come back with a new public safety proposal shortly.
The county executive had tentatively planned to hold a press conference Thursday to discuss details, but nothing came of it.
"The county executive has a conflict in his schedule for today, thus postponing any further announcement with respect to the status of the Harford County Fire and EMS Commission," Craig spokesman Bob Thomas wrote in an e-mail shortly after noon Thursday.