A long-standing conflict between the Posey Township Fire Department's board and firefighters came to a head Tuesday night, turning a meeting into a shouting match before a compromise was made.
The removal of Assistant Chief Errett Miller, a well-liked firefighter within the department, drew several of Posey Township's volunteer firefighters to the meeting to give their opinion on the matter.
"Basically, what it boils down to is a power struggle between the board and the fire department," Richard Munoz, Posey firefighter and first responder, said.
Many of the township's firefighters believe the board overstepped its boundaries when it passed a resolution allowing itself to remove firefighters "for the good of the department." This resentment was further fueled when Miller was removed by the board in February for reasons the firefighters did not agree with.
According to the board, Miller was removed for drinking on school property during the 2003 Jonah Fish Fry and using intimidating tactics to remove firefighters he didn't like, asking other firefighters to ignore them.
Miller would not confirm or deny drinking at the fish fry during the meeting.
"You brought this up nine months after it happened," he said. "I honestly cannot remember if I was drinking or not."
He did say that he never witnessed "anyone showing up on my fire scene under the influence of alcohol," however, and that he "never had any complaints" about that subject.
One firefighter did admit to drinking on the night in question, stating two others did as well. He said Miller was not one of these firefighters.
Several firefighters argued that it was strange that Miller was punished for doing something he never admitted to, while one other had admitted to it before and was not punished.
The firefighters collectively denied the intimidation charges, claiming that everyone who left did so on their own accord, not because they were bullied out. Additionally, they claimed that they only voted out those who planned to leave the department in the near future.
The board removed Miller from the fire department on Feb. 26. Miller continued to serve as assistant chief, however. The board hired a lawyer, who sent Miller a cease and desist letter, citing him as an insurance and safety liability. Still, Miller persisted.
"I'm still acting as assistant fire chief," Miller said, claiming that his fellow firefighters "voted" to keep him in. "They put me on and they asked me to stay. I am."
"We're the ones that work with him," one firefighter said. "Not you. We want to keep him in."
The board claimed that rumors of their threats to "lock up and shut down" the fire department were unfounded. Posey Township Trustee Mark Adamson implied that a veiled threat of that nature was made at a meeting, however, adding his take on the matter.
"I have control over the money here," he said, referring to the fire department's funds. "I hope you can run (this year's Jonah Fish Fry) with what you got, because you aren't getting a dime from me until this is resolved."
The board told Miller he was advised after his removal that he could reapply for the position in a year.
"There are by-laws, and these by-laws say we can remove anyone we choose and not give a reason," Board Member Larry Ringo said.
Hostility grew between the board and the firefighters as they discussed -- and sometimes shouted -- their views to one another. Firefighters noted that the board's job was to handle the fire department's money and that the firefighters themselves created the board decades ago.
"There seems to be a misunderstanding about how this department works," the board's attorney, Mark Hassler, said. "When the board makes an unpopular decision and the firefighters don't follow it, what's the point?
"You paint this board into a corner.... then you ask 'why is there a lawsuit?'"
More discussion arose from Miller's statement that he didn't turn in his equipment originally because nobody stepped up to sign for it.
"That's thousands of dollars worth of equipment," he said. "I'm not just going to leave it laying."
He said if a board member would accept the equipment that evening, he would step down.
"If I turn in my gear tonight, I have a feeling most of the others will, too," he said.
Hassler said the statement was little more than an ultimatum.
"If we don't decide this tonight, we're going to run into the same problem that's dragged this out for two or three months," he said.
Finally, the board consulted Hassler while Miller and other firefighters consulted Miller's lawyer, Charles Hear. After an hour of negotiation and talks, an agreement was reached. Under the agreement:
- Miller will be under suspension, starting retroactively on Feb. 26, and ending Aug. 26. He will be automatically reinstated on Aug. 27.
- His return will mark a probationary period, which will end on Feb. 26, 2005. During the probationary period, Miller will not work as an officer or training officer.
- By-laws will be revised by the board and three firefighters. The bylaw changes, if accepted by both parties, will take effect in a maximum of three months from June 1.
- No firefighters will be removed under the board's current bylaws.
- The lawsuit against Miller will be dropped "in good faith" and will not be picked back up unless Miller violates the terms of the agreement.
It was also noted that the agreement was legally binding. If either side breaks their end of the bargain, the other party will have legal grounds to file a case.
Tension was still high after the signing of the agreement, but both lawyers indicated the importance of the parties working together. In order for the revised bylaws to be implemented, the two groups must work together as well as they can.
"It's my belief that if both groups walk out muttering, you've reached a good agreement," Hassler said.