Harford County Executive David Craig signed an executive order Tuesday afternoon creating the public safety commission that he failed to get established through negotiations with fire and emergency medical services officials and a skeptical Harford County Council.
The commission's 11 members will review the county's largely privately run fire and ambulance system and make recommendations on issues such as training, volunteer recruitment, service fees, emergency service communications, funding needs and the county government's role in providing support for fire and EMS companies in apparatus purchase, maintenance or repairs.
Craig had proposed legislation to set up such a commission but withdrew it at the end of April, saying he was not satisfied with amendments the council had proposed, especially one that would have required six of 12 commission members to be Harford County Fire and Ambulance Association members, effectively ceding control of the panel to the fire companies.
"Today we are going to embark on what I guess you could call a new path," Craig said during a press conference in Bel Air where he announced his new commission.
With him were a number of county department heads, as well as Tony Coliano, of the Bel Air Volunteer Fire Company, Fire and EMS Association president Bill Dousa and Les Adams, a consultant for Craig's earlier public safety commission, which he had set up on a temporary basis.
Craig said an efficient public safety system in the growing county remains a major need, citing the car accident in Fallston earlier that day that killed two people and seriously injured two others.
"We just had an accident today in Harford County that affects public safety," he said.
"The time to act is now," Craig continued. "There is pride in knowing, I believe, we are doing the right thing in creating the public safety commission."
Craig said the journey is to ensure the county has emergency service that is "responsible, reasonable and proactive," and will not be about "posturing" or politics.
He said politics led to "a little stalemate" between his administration and fire and EMS leaders.
"As we embark on this new path, I have made some changes to the composition of the present commission and the legislation that was passed," Craig said in reference to the temporary commission that was in place for about a year.
"We have had for the last 15 months, I think, very good actions by them," he said. "All have made significant contributions."
Several of those commission members are not returning, including chairman Bill Cox. Craig thanked them all for serving.
After introducing the new commission members, Craig said they all have one common denominator: "They are proud to call Harford County their home."
Tony Bennett, of Famous and Spang Insurance, was appointed to chair the commission. He is a longtime member of the Aberdeen Fire Department and is also the brother of Aberdeen Mayor Mike Bennett.
The other members are:
• Dr. Tim Chizmar, of Upper Chesapeake Health System;
• Stephen Gamatoria, of the Susquehanna Hose Company;
• Chris Gibbons, of Harford County Volunteer Fire and EMS Association;
• Judy Mills-Hinch, of the Aberdeen Fire Department;
• Edward Hopkins, a Bel Air fire chief, a member Harford County Fire Chiefs Liaison Committee and Chairman of the Bel Air Board of Town Commissioners;
• Lt. Walter Kerr, of Maryland State Police Aviation Division and member of the Level Volunteer Fire Company;
• Theresa Lewis, vice president and business manager of Total Urgent Care;
• Charles "Bud" Ramsay, retired local businessman and a member of the county's Citizens Budget Advisory Board;
• Russell J. Strickland, retired assistant director of the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute;
• Bob Tibbs, owner and operator of Shadow Springs Farm near Havre de Grace and a member of the county's Citizens Budget Advisory Board.
The commission will begin serving June 1 and will continue to examine and recommend follow-up actions related to the county's fire and EMS master plan, released last year.
Bennett thanked the county administration for having confidence in him and allowing him to lead.
He said the previous commission did a lot of work on behalf of Harford County residents, and the permanent commission will build on that.
"I will not use the term 'transparent;' I do not like it," Bennett said, explaining that he does promise to all stakeholders, especially Harford residents, "we will be inclusive and we will involve you as we make recommendations to go forward with the county executive."
"You will be included and your opinions will be considered," he added.
Craig said he hopes to have a meeting with the group shortly after the commission begins serving in June.
He said he hopes the commission brings together many people to help further an agenda.
He cited an example of a recent editorial in The Aegis that suggested the county does not need a new emergency operations center – a $40 million project Craig supports.
"It's good to have a broad base of support to build those kinds of issues," he said.