Contentious meeting pits finance against fire department
WOODBRIDGE - The simmering animosity between the Woodbridge Volunteer Fire Association and the Board of Finance boiled over at the Dec 19 meeting of the BOF. Representatives from the WVFA expressed their feelings during a two-hour public comment period.
Caught off guard, BOF members scrambled to defend themselves, even raising questions about whether there were irregularities in the bidding procedures surrounding the purchase of a rescue truck for the fire department.
Beth Heller, chairwoman of the Woodbridge fire commission, was the first to address some of the contentious issues. Accompanied by two other fire commissioners, Chris Laydon and Bill Burt, Heller questioned whether the BOF had dealt fairly with the fire department.
Over the last few years, the WVFA has made requests for upgraded equipment and facilities. According to Heller, the BOF has unfairly scrutinized these requests such that the fire department has felt "singled out."
Heller questioned comparisons that the BOF had made between the WVFA and fire departments of other towns at some of the previous meetings. She was disturbed that these comparisons were raised without contacting the fire department before hand. The fire department, therefore, was unable to evaluate these claims prior to the meetings, leaving them at a disadvantage.
In addition, after further research by the WVFA concerning these comparisons, their validity seemed dubious.
Heller said, "We have continually left each meeting having to research misstatements and then return to correct these half-truths and misstatements at subsequent meetings."
Tom Kennefick, a volunteer firefighter and former Board of Education member, suggested to the BOF, "Do a little research and talk to the chief before the meeting."
George Giering, a member of the BOF, was one of the individuals who had raised these comparisons during BOF meetings over the past year. Defending his actions, Giering said he was trying to find alternative solutions. He admitted, however, after making the comparisons, "I was not aware of some of the facts."
Heller also voiced concerns about the attitude of the BOF toward safety.
She referred to the November BOF meeting concerning a request by the WVFA to update the mobile communications equipment. This equipment is the safety link between each firefighter, whether in a burning building or searching in the dark. Matt Giglietti, chairman of the BOF, had said at that meeting that replacing communication radios did not seem necessary since the radios continued to function. He also stated that things in his home had outlived their life expectancy, saying, "I just don't replace them."
Heller responded during the public comment period with, "A microwave, stove, home radio, etc, cannot and should not be compared to a portable radio on a firefighter. We shouldn't wait until what might be a life-saving piece of equipment fails."
Kennefick made additional remarks that seemed to resonate with the crowd.
He referred to the BOF's frequent "eye rolling and the chuckling and the things that go on during the (BOF) meetings" when discussing the fire department. Commenting that the BOF seemed to forget that the meeting was televised, Kennefick said, "We need more of a show of respect. We feel we're second class citizens."
Giglietti defended some of the actions of the BOF.
To begin with, Giglietti explained that 70 percent of the budget went for educational funding. Therefore, only 30 percent remained to be disbursed to the other 30 or so town departments.
Giglietti maintained that the BOF compared all the departments to different towns, and the fire department shouldn't feel singled out.
Giglietti said that the BOF was trying to find other ways to satisfy the goals of the fire department without increasing taxes.
Expressing concern about the timing of the rescue truck request, Giglietti said he was surprised that the truck funding was slated for the current year.
The funding request, however, had previously been unanimously approved by the BOS and the BOF, and bid specs had been sent out earlier in the year. When Heller asked Giglietti if he was aware that the bid for the truck had gone out, Giglietti said, "Of course I knew it went out to bid."
The WVFA was stunned when Giglietti and Giering went on to say that questions had been raised about the bid process for the rescue truck. The bid was crafted by the truck committee and reviewed by the fire commission, the BOS and the town counsel. Once approved, the bid was sent to appropriate vendors, as well as to appropriate publications.
Giglietti said, "It's a member of your truck committee, who is also on the fire commission, who's raising the question. Bob Sorensen; he's raising the question."
Sorensen gave the 60-page bid document to Giering and Giglietti.
According to them, Sorensen maintained that the bid specs were written so that only one truck, the E1 truck, could meet the specs. Sorensen never discussed his allegations with the other commissioners or firefighters.
Sorensen did not return phone calls.
Although no one went so far as to suggest bid rigging, Giglietti later said, "If I was a betting man, it appears that bid was specific to E1 (the truck vendor). They're carbon copies to me. It's called plagiarism in school."
Remarking that the bid-specs appeared to be constructed toward a specific truck, Giering later said, "It looks like it was written exactly to buy that truck."
Andrew Esposito, the fire chief, said, "The bid documents were reviewed by the town counsel. If there were any questions, they should have been raised months ago."
Jim Kaoud, a firefighter, countered with, "That's ludicrous. That bid is not directed at any one manufacturer."
Sean Rowland, the assistant fire chief, explained, "It's a generic bid. Anybody could bid on it."
Rowland pointed out that of the six or seven eligible manufacturers, the town received four bids, suggesting a healthy response.
Esposito said, "That man (Sorensen) has never driven a fire truck. You need to drive your apparatus. You need to know something about firefighting before you actually go purchase a vehicle."
Kaoud added, "He's (Sorensen) never been on a fire run."
Ed Sheehy, the first selectman said, "It seems to me that everything was appropriate. I didn't see anything irregular."
Sheehy also said, "This truck is the key to their (WVFA) operation. We've all studied this; we've all voted. We have to move on with this."
Giglietti was not completely swayed by the arguments of the fire department. He said, "I'm not a 100 percent convinced."
Giering also remained unsatisfied, saying, "I'm not happy with the bid. I'm going to press for the BOS to review it and the town counsel. I hope that something can be done."