the road to hell
Connecticut state representative John Scott introduced a bill in Hartford that he thinks will end Ackley-like coups in Connecticut. If fire boards are elected on regular election ballots instead of at annual meetings where a few voters choose the board, then, shucks, the process will be, ah, well, ah, well what?*
Scott has good intentions, but he’s either naive or just does not want to launch the Great Battle of the Fire Districts. The New London Day article describing the bill and Scott’s logic revealed the battlefield in the quotes that add up to this: Nobody wants to relinquish local control, especially Mystic. The City of Groton and the Town can’t even get together on a plan for a joint police department, and none of those rich people in Groton Long Point, including former PBFD board member Peter Legnos, want to give up a low mill rate gained by renting fire protection from Mystic.
if it ain’t broke
It’s the ancient wisdom of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Meaning, we got along just fine with horse-drawn fire pumps, so why the hell do we need one of those new fangled gasoline trucks? Hell, each district did just fine with its own emergency dispatch before 9-1-1, so why do we have go pay for everyone else to have fire dispatch? PBFD had firefighers who dispatched their own calls, then a volunteer would drive down to the station to answer the phones while the firefighters were out on a call. It worked then. 9-1-1 is a waste of taxpayer dollars. Remember that lady at the annual meeting who said her Volvo had a 100,000 miles on it and still ran fine, so she couldn’t see any reason for a new fire engine. Nope. Heck, PBFD used to respond to all fires downhill from the Fort Hill station because they had to push the old Mac out the door and jump start it. Worked then.
2014 already proved that the Groton town council won’t touch the idea of unity with a fifteen foot pike pole because a solid majority of the town council members do not live in PBFD, the one district in town that caused such a public uproar in the last two years since Alan Ackley decided to run the fire district like a booze shop. Since then he’s driven elected people off the board and packed it with appointed family and employees.
No change in how boards are elected will prevent the mess that occurred in Coventry, Rhode Island where the state had to intervene or in Groton’s PBFD where people think slashing budgets is the solution to good government. Ignorant local control will remain ignorant, which is the reason, by the way, that a century ago professional management of local government became a good idea for preventing incompetent and corrupt leadership from gaining power through ballot manipulation.
get rid of special districts for emergency services
The other fundamental problem is the special district itself. Scott needs to introduce a bill to abolish independent fire districts in Connecticut.
The 18th Century political theory behind special taxing districts is that local control is good; its more democratic; it gives people a voice in setting tax rates and gives voters direct oversight. But. We agree with Churchill that democracy is the best form of government even though it’s a lousy way to govern. Why? First, people don’t vote. And imagine the confusion of the few who do vote when they’re confronted with a mile-long ballot cluttered by multiple candidates for each fire board position in a town with nine fire districts, not including the Sub Base fire department, which is run by the federal government, which means local control does not exist. Or does Scott propose having a separate ballot for each district?
And second, how will voters be informed about the candidates for board positions? Third. What incentives exist to attract candidates to run? Fourth. What would prevent another political boss from packing the ballot with cronies and then getting out the trailer park vote to assure election of the handpicked political hacks?
Nope. Get rid of special districts. Period. It’s an antiquated government structure that has served its time and needs to be sent to the museum with horse-drawn fire pumps. The solution is law that requires emergency services to be contiguous with municipal boundaries and also allows local governments to unite for economy of scale at the county level. In Groton, that means the Representative Town Meeting and the Town Council would have direct responsibility for emergency services budgeting with a single professional administrator, the chief, running day to day operations.
Right now in Groton, the duplication of administrative structure is absurd with a chief, deputy, fire marshal, and sundry other officers in each fire district.
Representative Scott needs to push for talks to begin on unification.
Getting from colonial-era special districts to 21rst Century emergency services in Groton will take time and skilled politics, but local leadership has yet to emerge to take the lead, to get on point in a battle that will take years to overcome the resistance to change that now exists. Nobody gives up power without being forced to do so, and that’s not going to happen before a whole lot of convincing is done with dollar signs attached for the voters. They have to be persuaded that they’ll pay a helluva lot less for a whole lot more with a Groton Fire Department having one chief and four (five including the Sub Base) stations rather than the current inefficient, expensive mess.
Bring in a professional planner to work with grad students from the University of Connecticut MPA program to develop a unification blueprint, complete with cost figures, for the RTM and the Town Council and the fire boards to review.
And that’s just the beginning of change.
*We hear occasionally that firefighters don’t care about politics or shouldn’t have to worry about politics or that all politicians are dirty and firefighters don’t want anything to do with them. All naive assertions. The public fire service has always been just that—a public service. And a public service is supported by taxes, which means it’s political.
Barry Roberts Greer, editor
author, Pipe Nozzle, Seven Two, Engine 10, Of Cowards and Firefighters