Friday, June 22, 2018
By David Skolnick
It turns out the city didn’t start a rotating closure of fire stations as planned.
And there is confusion and conflicting stories as to how it didn’t happen, including an allegation of an illegal council meeting.
The Mayor Jamael Tito Brown administration initially suggested to council the city use most of an $85,000 fund to replace the rusted frame of a fire truck to cover an overtime increase in the department.
But council members rejected that proposal at a Tuesday finance committee meeting, saying a longer-term solution is needed.
Fire Chief Barry Finley reluctantly suggested closing stations on a rotating basis and using the three firefighters who would work at those stations to make up for a staffing shortfall at other stations to save overtime.
Council accepted that proposal Tuesday, and the first shutdown was scheduled for Thursday.
After Wednesday night’s council meeting, however, Councilwoman Lauren McNally, D-5th, chairwoman of the finance committee, had a telephone conversation with Finley about keeping Station No. 15 on the West Side open and not shutting down other stations on a rotating basis.
There’s little agreement as to what happened next.
Law Director Jeff Limbian said Finley told him McNally said the finance committee gave him the go-ahead to not close the stations.
Limbian said that would violate the state’s open meetings law.
Finley confirmed to The Vindicator that McNally specifically mentioned the finance committee.
“She said the finance committee had discussed it and was looking for the fire department to have a long-term financial plan,” Finley said.
McNally said she never gave Finley a directive to keep the station open and denied council met illegally.
“I had a personal conversation with the chief, and I asked him if there was anything we could do to maintain the fire houses from closing,” McNally told The Vindicator. “I asked if he could put together a long-term plan to reconsider his overtime problem at a finance committee meeting.”
She added there were no discussions with other council members about keeping the stations opened after Wednesday’s meeting concluded.
Councilwomen Anita Davis, D-6th, and Basia Adamczak, D-7th, who make up the finance committee with McNally, also said they didn’t have any discussions after Wednesday’s council meeting about the fire situation and maintained no illegal meeting took place.
Limbian said: “Someone is not telling the truth. The fire department is open and Chief Finley said council undid what it did.”
In a Thursday letter to council, Limbian wrote it likely violated the state’s open meetings law by possibly having an “ad hoc meeting of some members of council, particularly the finance committee” after Wednesday night’s meeting.
He added: “It has come to my attention that [Wednesday] night, after the regularly scheduled meeting of the finance committee and council meeting, there may have been discussions of finance committee members in violation of the Ohio Revised Code relative to additional funding of the fire department to avoid the temporary rotating closure of any of the fire stations. While the gesture, if it occurred, might have been well-intended, such cannot be allowed to occur without condemnation.”
The fire department has already spent about $81,700 of its budget of $108,000 for overtime this year and will hit the budgeted figure by mid-July, Finley said. The department needs about $60,000 to $65,000 to cover overtime for the rest of the year.
Finley and Brown said Thursday the overtime shortfall will come from the $85,000 budget to fix a fire truck’s rusted frame, and that repair would be pushed back to 2019.
“She [McNally] said there would be money from the $85,000” repair budget, Finley said.
Brown said, “In my mind, we have a plan for the chief to not go over his overtime budget by using the $85,000.”
McNally, however, said she never told Finley the repair budget would be used to cover overtime, and she isn’t authorized to make that decision.
McNally said she told Finley to pay overtime expenses out of the overtime budget, as has been done, and council will hear the long-term solutions for the fire department at the meetings next week.
Other council members also said they weren’t involved in a meeting after council adjourned.
“It’s laughable,” said Councilman Julius Oliver, D-1st, about allegations of an illegal meeting. “It’s funny. There was no discussion.”
Councilman Mike Ray, D-4th, said he wasn’t involved in any post-meeting discussions, but Finley told him Thursday that McNally said the finance committee “gave him the go-ahead to keep the station open. We have committees and procedures. If the committee changed its mind, it needs to do that in a public fashion.”
A council finance committee meeting to discuss the fire department’s monetary issues, McNally said, is tentatively scheduled for next Friday. Also, council’s safety committee is meeting Thursday to talk about the issues and long-term financial plans for the fire department.