Montgomery Fire and Rescue Service Chief Richard Bowers is totally in favor of a controversial bill that would restructure the fire department and curb the power of the county’s fire commission. His boss, County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), is less so.
The Fire and Emergency Services Commission, which has volunteer, union and civilian members, currently oversees fire-rescue policy and has the power to veto policies proposed by Bowers. Some county legislators view the commission as an impediment to putting fire-rescue resources to best use.
But others say they want to preserve the balance of power between the career firefighters and volunteers, who have butted heads as the two forces merged over the decades.
The County Council is considering a bill, introduced by council members Marc Elrich (D-At Large) and George L. Leventhal (D-At Large), that would take away the commission’s veto power. At at a council public hearing Tuesday, Bowers testified to his support and the volunteers testified to their opposition.
Behind the scenes, Bowers has been lobbying council members to support the bill, but Leggett has been quiet on the issue. On Monday, Leggett made public his lack of enthusiasm for the legislation.
“I agree with the sentiment of trying to provide some level of conformity and some level of direct manning and control and having the chief far more supported than he is today,” said Leggett, who did not attend the public hearing. “There’s still a question that this bill might be able to do that.”
Leggett said he has heard of alternatives but declined to say what they are. Both Bowers and Marcine D. Goodloe, president of the Montgomery County Volunteer Fire-Rescue Association, say they remain firm on their stances. Bowers: chuck the veto entirely. Goodloe: keep it as it stands.
The firefighter union, International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1644, which has two members on the commission, has not expressed an opinion on the bill. Raymond Sanchez, a union representative, said the group hasn’t reached a consensus.
Nonetheless, a majority of the seven-member commission in a straw vote on Thursday objected to the bill, deeming the veto power an important characteristic of the group.
“It silences everyone and turns the fire services into a dictatorship,” Joel Buzy, a volunteer representative, said at the meeting.
The legislation is the latest salvo in the struggle over how volunteers fit in local communities that were once largely rural but now are mostly suburban and even becoming urban. Decades ago, volunteers took all the fire calls in the suburbs, but county governments have incorporated salaried firefighters into departments over the years.
Since the merger between career and volunteer firefighters in 2004, tensions have flared. In May 2010, the County Council approved an ambulance fee that it said would save $14 million a year. The volunteers, who said the fee would deter residents from using ambulance services, helped organize a referendum vote that struck down the fee.
In February, Bowers gave salaried firefighters control of the Burtonsville fire station after receiving reports of harassment by volunteers. Soon after, the volunteer fire chief and four other senior volunteer fire officials at the station resigned.
The council’s public safety committee will discuss the bill at a meeting on Nov. 17.