Updated April 22, 2019: The story has been updated to link to responses from Village President Sheena Collum and FMBA Local 40 and 240 of South Orange.
Deborah Davis Ford, long-time South Orange Trustee and candidate for South Orange Village President, defended a flier sent to South Orange households last week by the SO Foward campaign, and criticized Village Green for its reporting on the flier.
The negative flier hit doorsteps in South Orange on Friday and caused a backlash online — notably in a thread on the SOMa Lounge Facebook group of 13,000+ members — and numerous messages and emails to Village Green with shots of the flier, which characterized current Village President Sheena Collum as planning to “kill our fire department” and champion a plan that would have “less firefighters protecting us.”
Village Green fact-checked the flier using the consolidation study that proposed merging the two fire departments into one large department and increasing the number of firefighters and apparatus that would serve South Orange through a shared services agreement. A link to the study was provided in the SO Forward flier. We posted rebuttals from Maplewood and South Orange elected officials, and we updated the story with responses from the SO Forward campaign as they were received.
Saying that Village Green was acting like the “Fox News of Sheena Collum,” Davis Ford, who was interviewed by phone, said she was disappointed in Village Green’s coverage as she said she felt it had a reputation for being fair in the past.
Davis Ford also defended the flier saying, “There’s a difference between being negative and focusing on the issues.”
Davis Ford said that the flier was purposefully negative in order to get people’s attention and that a more thoughtful flier would soon follow with positive policy positions and additional, detailed information. “It was a scheduled process,” said Davis Ford. “That will be coming out shortly.”
Davis Ford told Village Green that she felt that the original flier is accurate and asked Village Green to “name one thing in the flier that is false.”
Village Green asked about the phrase “Collum’s plan to kill our fire department,” saying it gave many the impression that the department would cease to exist and and that South Orange would lose fire protection instead of becoming part of a larger Maplewood-South Orange Fire Department. (Village Green received queries from residents asking if the firehouse on Sloan Street would be shuttered or if all South Orange firefighters would be fired; neither is a part of the plan. In fact, the firehouse will be remain and South Orange firefighters will become employees of the consolidated department and maintain their rank.) Davis Ford defended the use of the word “kill” in order to “get attention” and said that language in the shared services agreement does use the word “dissolve” in order to allow Maplewood to become the lead agency in the shared agency.
Village Green asked about the bullet point: “Shifts will reduce from 8 firefighters to 3 firefighters.”
The study posits three scenarios for minimum staffing across three firehouses (1 firehouse in South Orange and 2 in Maplewood) that range “from 14 (the current number assigned by both agencies cumulatively), to 12, a new on-duty minimum staff reduction of two positions” that would respond across the two towns. [Updated local officials, including Collum, report that the negotiated minimum staffing for the South Orange firehouse would be 6 firefighters, a number that they say Davis Ford was aware of before the flier was created.]
Davis Ford said that the Sloan Street firehouse was closer to South Orange homes and had some special apparatus needed for the hill. When we noted that the Dunnell Road firehouse in Maplewood is actually closer to some South Orange homes and asked about mutual aid agreements, she said we should contact South Orange firefighters for follow up. [Updated: South Orange FMBA Local 40 and 240 responded in a statement, criticizing Collum and thanking Davis Ford “for bringing this issue to the forefront.”]
Davis Ford said that she opposed Maplewood being the lead agency as proposed in the draft agreement, saying it gave South Orange no control over the new merged department.
She called upon Sheena Collum to release the draft shared services agreement. Davis Ford said she had a copy of the agreement, but when Village Green asked her to forward it, she said that we should ask Collum to release it publicly. (The fact that Maplewood was identified as the lead agency in 2018 has been discussed publicly and reported on.)
Village Green also asked about the fact that the consolidation team is discussing a joint meeting — should the towns receive approval from the state — to provide a shared management mechanism for the merged department between the two towns — something that Collum supports. Davis Ford responded that the idea originated with her (Davis Ford) and that Collum was not initially supportive. [Updated in a March 25 Board of Trustees update and exchange with Davis Ford, Collum stated that South Orange was recommending a joint meeting with Maplewood, as well as civil service.]
Davis Ford said she stood by her assertion — as did the firefighters who support her — that the savings outlined in the plan do not justify what she characterized as reduced public safety. “And I’m not willing to support anything that will save taxpayers only $10/year.”
She also pushed aback against the idea that firefighters might not support the plan in order to preserve jobs, calling the assertion “offensive.”
“I and the South Orange firefighters who support me have no issue with any kind of consolidation. Regional would probably be better as long as we have a form of governance. That’s it. I’m not against anything that would have taxpayers save money,” said Davis Ford.
Davis Ford said that the followup flier would present her team’s plan for consolidation, including a joint meeting structure for governance.
“I have respect for Sheena and the name of my slate [SO Forward] was well thought of. I’m proud of the things I’ve done collaboratively with this body.” Davis Ford cited her “extensive background in managing teams in the corporate world” and in managing a legislative body [the Essex County Freeholders].
“I know this and I do this,” said Davis Ford.
Despite the negative flier, Davis Ford insisted that she was always positive online and she took Collum supporters to task for “trolling” her supporters online.
“I love South Orange,” said Davis Ford. “You know my hashtag: #MyBelovedVillage.”
She also voiced her concern that a Maplewood-led fire department would not be civil service — as is South Orange. “If we are so progressive, this initiative is very regressive in taking away civil service jobs,” said Davis Ford. “I’m sensitive to that as a African-American woman,” she said, adding that civil service had given many in the community “a decent quality of life.”
Village Green noted that there is discussion that the merged department could be civic service. Davis Ford said that that was because she had pushed the idea.
Davis Ford also defended the seeming anti-Maplewood rhetoric of the flier and her campaign’s responses to queries. “My focus is on South Orange. I’m not running to be Village President of South Orange and Maplewood.” However, she said, “I’m very proud of our multiple shared service agreements. It makes sense. But not every proposal is good and this is one of those that is not good.”
Regarding Village Green’s coverage, Davis Ford said she felt that Village Green had not reported her campaign’s responses in a timely fashion, saying that TAPinto had posted a standalone story on Saturday when her campaign had sent its initial response to our request for comment. Village Green pointed out that we updated our original story with the full response on Saturday and had updated the story again with a followup responses to additional questions (and posted those updates online). Davis Ford also took Village Green to task for continuously asking followup questions of her team; we responded that that is our job.
Some of those questions involved Moses Oliva, Davis Ford’s campaign communications director. Oliva sent us a response to a question that read, “When South Orange hires firefighters they must live in town, they have invested in becoming residents, in many cases our firefighters grew up right here in our Village, they have been our neighbors, they have roots here.”
Village Green noted that two township officials have reported that most South Orange firefighters do not live in town; Davis Ford clarified that firefighters are required to live in town for one year when hired.
Because of the South Orange-centric tone of the campaign, Village Green asked Oliva if he was a South Orange resident. He has not responded. When we asked Davis Ford, she called it a “gotcha” question, asked “why that mattered” and did not answer the question, saying that Oliva is a longtime friend.
Davis Ford also clarified that while she is not accepting contributions from PACs or unions, she is accepting contributions from firefighters. This was a follow up to a statement from Oliva that SO Forward “does not receive PAC money from firefighters or their unions.”
Davis Ford said that she has had tremendous positive response to the flier: “I’ve gotten an increase in calls from people, blowing up my phone and sending me emails saying, ‘Thank you for bringing this to my attention.'”
Finally, Davis Ford said she would welcome the opportunity to debate Sheena Collum on the issue.