In this year’s crazier-than-usual South Orange municipal election, one outside group has become a major player: The statewide firefighters union known as the NJ FMBA.
The NJ FMBA has joined the two South Orange FMBA Locals #40 and #240 in announcing its endorsement of Deborah Davis Ford for Village President.
The FMBA has become involved as the 2-1/2 process to merge the South Orange and Maplewood fire departments is reaching a critical stage. Davis Ford and her camp contend that incumbent Village President Sheena Collum has kept firefighters out of the conversation and is endangering the safety of residents with a proposal that would cede control of the fire department to Maplewood.
Collum is countering that Davis Ford, a 12-year member of the Board of Trustees, has been a part of this process, with a current proposal on the table to create a mechanism that gives both towns equal control and preserves civil service status across towns. Collum and elected officials across both towns have accused Davis Ford of playing fast and loose with the facts in order to scare voters. Davis Ford says she is acting a whistleblower and getting residents more informed of the process.
Enter the FMBA.
To support Davis Ford and her running mates for Board of Trustees — Stacey Trimble-Borden, Matt Wonski and Ed Grossi — the NJ FMBA has created a website sofirefacts.org that has been promoted on the Davis Ford slate’s SO Forward campaign materials. (The veracity of the information on the website and fliers has been contested by Collum, Maplewood Mayor Vic DeLuca and other elected officials from both towns involved in the negotiations.)
The FMBA also announced that firefighters — both from South Orange and from other departments around the state — would be going door to door in South Orange to campaign for the SO Forward slate.
And a public relations consultant working with the NJ FMBA has been lending a hand.
Village Green reached out to NJ FMBA President Eddie Donnelly to ask him about the campaign; Donnelly spoke to Village Green on Sunday night via phone.
Village Green asked if the union was targeting Collum in order to put a halt to the merger.
Donnelly said that the union “is not against consolidation. We welcome consolidation — if it works and as long as we are at the table to see it through.” Donnelly said that, “In this case the Village President [Sheena Collum] worked behind the scenes and didn’t bring us to the table.”
Village Green asked about Maplewood and South Orange being a “test case” for mergers. Should the two towns overcome issues such as civil service vs. non-civil service, more towns around the state could follow — meaning the possible loss of opportunities for advancement for firefighters and the potential loss of overtime.
Donnelly said that he was currently working on the consolidation of 8 fire districts into one municipal department in Hamilton NJ. “I’m under the microscope on that,” he said, saying that the difference in that consolidation vs. South Orange/Maplewood is that the FMBA has been “completely involved in it. From day one.”
Donnelly said that the FMBA had gotten involved in the South Orange election because, although Maplewood and South Orange have been “talking about merging for 20 years,” it recently “picked up steam because Sheena wants to give the department to Maplewood.”
“My firefighters are worried and the residents of South Orange should be extremely worried,” said Donnelly. “When the crap hits the fan, Maplewood is going to take care of Maplewood.” Donnelly clarified that he was not saying that firefighters wouldn’t take care of South Orange residents; rather, he meant that the Maplewood Township Committee would prioritize Maplewood over South Orange.
Regarding a meeting between Collum, DeLuca, the FMBA and state shared services “czars” from the Department of Community Affairs held in Union on March 18, Donnelly said he “forced that meeting” and that Collum was reluctant to attend. “That was the first time we saw that agreement,” said Donnelly. “And that is when we made it clear that if civil service is not a part of it, we’re out,” said Donnelly.
Collum and DeLuca both disagree with Donnelly’s characterization of the meeting. DeLuca, in a phone conversation Monday, said that he invited Collum to meet with the FMBA and the czars, and that she was “very interested” and willing. Collum also said she “very much welcomed” the meeting and was open to a joint meeting governance model with civil service, as recommended in a March 25 update at the South Orange Board of Trustees meeting.
Village Green asked Donnelly why the union was targeting Collum and not DeLuca in its information campaign. Donnelly responded, “What’s Vic got to lose? He’s got the keys to the kingdom.” He added, “My Maplewood guys are not that concerned right now.”
In an interview in April, Maplewood Fire Capt. and FMBA local 25 rep Chris Ariemma told Village Green that although DeLuca had been responsive throughout the process to firefighters’ questions, they had not been included in merger discussions — until the March 18 meeting with the state shared services czars. “We’re not against this,” said Ariemma, “but we want to be a part of it too.”
Donnelly also responded to questions about whether or not the NJ FMBA had hired a consultant named Steve Lenox to help elect Davis Ford (the SO Forward campaign has previously denied that it hired Lenox). Lenox appeared at a Davis Ford campaign event at The Baird on May 8.
Donnelly said that Lenox “has been working for the FMBA for about three years. Long before this was a hot topic.” Calling Lenox “apolitical,” Donnelly said that Lenox “does not weigh in at all on political endorsements.”
(Note: While Steve Lenox is the franchise owner of TAPintoPaterson, a local news site that is part of the TAPinto network, he has no ownership of TAPintoSOMA, which provides local coverage of South Orange and Maplewood.)