Craig's proposed fire commission derailed by fire/EMS division

A proposal by Harford County Executive David Craig to establish a fire and emergency medical service commission was tied up by a controversy among several of the different stakeholders, specifically the Harford County Fire & EMS Association, which is opposed to the bill.

The Harford County Council spent several hours during a public hearing Tuesday night dissecting the details of the bill, including the commission's member make-up, as several fire and emergency service officials said they did not agree with the county's proposal or had issues with the fire study that authorized the commission last year.

The council would not vote on the bill that evening, Council President Billy Boniface said.

"I think I have heard probably eight different stories from eight different groups," Boniface told Craig, who made the unusual move of appearing before the council to discuss proposed legislation. "You have quite a task; there's no consensus whatsoever among everyone who's involved in fire and EMS in this county right now and I think it all stems back to the fear of the unknown."

The commission would include 11 members who are Harford residents, six of whom would be fire or EMS providers and five who are not. One of the fire service appointees would represent the Harford County Fire & EMS Association.

The members would be appointed by the county executive and confirmed by the county council, with a charter designated by the county executive. They would serve three-year staggered terms.

The group would advise the county executive and other county officials on operations and training issues, and submit an annual report, although Craig said he would like that in quarterly form.

The bill came with seven amendments Tuesday night.

Bill Dousa and attorney John Gessner, who said they were the only ones officially allowed to represent the Harford County Fire & EMS Association, spoke against the bill.

"I am concerned this establishes the commission in a vacuum," Dousa said, explaining the bill has no language on how the commission would interface with the association.

"Bill 12-18 was written by the administration with no input from the association," he said, accusing the county of spending $85,000 on a fire study when other studies have been done in the past.

He said the association has already implemented 15 recommendations from the study.

"We're doing our part," Dousa said. "We are not opposed to accountability, we are not opposed to change, we are not opposed to a fire and EMS commission if it's formed in the right way."

Boniface questioned language regarding an organization called the Harford County Fire Chiefs Association and whether it is defunct.

He noted county law gives responsibility to that association.

Tony Bennett, of the Aberdeen Fire Department, one of four people Craig selected to speak on behalf of his bill, said although the new association may not be legally in a position of authority, "I think there's been a custom and tradition of how things move forward and the association has adopted that role."

Association officials said they replace the chiefs association.

Gessner said he does not see why this commission is necessary.

"We think that's the wrong approach," he said. "What will this cost the taxpayers? What is the ultimate goal?...We don't need to form this commission to fix a typographical error."

Cooperation between the county administration and fire or EMS officials, including a union recently adopted by fire and EMS companies, seemed in short supply Tuesday evening, as official after official testified against Craig's bill, or had issues with how it might be carried out.

Mention of a paid fire service, which the administration has previously insisted it is not planning to create, came up during the meeting.

At the end of his testimony supporting a separate, unrelated fire and EMS funding bill, Dousa said it was "a stopgap until the count actually does have a paid service."

Craig justified his original request of 11 members on the commission. The amendments would create a nine-member commission, with five fire or EMS providers instead of six, and four general residents instead of five.

The amendments would also require the group to meet at least nine times a year and merely recommend rules or regulations, after consulting with the association.

Speaking about other jurisdictions, Craig said: "Howard County has a paid service and fire tax instead, so the county executive doesn't need as strong an advisory board because he has a paid chief... Every county is slightly different."

Gene Worthington, head of the association, explained the "defunct" chiefs' organization is the result of a mistake that has been fixed.

"We goofed. We failed to submit to the state our nonprofit tax forms," he said.

Worthington also said he has seen "a dozen" studies similar to the recent one and had expected a document more similar to one produced by the state.

"There is no disagreement that we all want to improve the services for our citizens, so let's get a work group," Worthington said. "Let's create the real fire and EMS master plan, one that is reviewed here in Harford County."

David Lewis, president of the Maryland State Firemen's Association, said he supported the fire companies and their request to amend or withdraw the legislation.

"It's not clear how another legislative body overseeing this would improve its effectiveness," he said about emergency service.

Craig emphasized that the commission would be strictly advisory, and the amendments tried to make it even clearer that various groups would not lose control over emergency service.

"We have a lot of commissions that are out there that are appointed by the county executive and selected by you, and they are advisory," he said, adding the administration supports groups like the association.

"This is not something to replace them, to move them aside, it's to ensure we do what we need to do to help them," he said.

The commission was suggested after a temporary fire and EMS committee, put in action by the fire study, had been meeting for about a year.

Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti asked Craig: "Is it required, is it necessary, is this something that could be done just as the existing commission was done under the executive order?"

Craig replied: "This is one of the first things the commission came back and said we need to make this permanent."

Councilman Jim McMahan noted he put together a good commission, met with many stakeholders and provided answers with "unprecedented speed."

"When the legislation was introduced, why did we create such a firestorm?" he asked, wondering why no one seemed to be on the same page.

"I guess cause it's a fire study," Craig joked. "I've been on the same page the whole time, page four: create a fire commission."

"It is still an advisory group for us to make recommendations," he continued. "In the long run, I still think it continues to make our system a great system… We have a great system but it's stressed. We need to get it all working together so it protects the citizens we represent."

Councilman Joe Woods, who has been with the Fallston fire company, said he definitely believes having some type of commission is beneficial but had issues with the proposed size and make-up of the group, as well as wording that makes it more regulatory than advisory.

Craig agreed issues like that are "workable," and agreed with Woods that decisions should not be made without consulting fire chiefs.

"I am not an elected official who pulls things after years of study," Craig told the council. "I could leave all of this on the table for someone else. I think it needs to be done."

"There's always going to be someone saying 'don't move that forward yet,'" he said.

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