South Orange, a township of 16,000 people, has attracted the attention of the statewide New Jersey Firemen’s Benevolent Association and its leader, who promised that firefighters will be going door to door to campaign for Deborah Davis Ford.
Davis Ford, who has served for 12 years on the South Orange Village Board of Trustees, is challenging current Village President Sheena Collum for that seat. Election Day is May 14.
As reported by David Wildstein in the New Jersey Globe, in announcing their endorsement of Deborah Davis Ford, South Orange’s local firefighters’ unions “have the backing of a powerful state political leader, NJ FMBA president Eddie Donnelly, whose union represents more than 5,000 firefighters, EMT’s and dispatchers.”
“When a leader is confident in their plan they don’t charge forward alone,” Donnelly told the New Jersey Globe, referring to Collum.
Donnelly continued, “Ms. Collum’s decision to largely keep key stakeholders, most notably the men and women that know firefighting best, in the dark about her plan to cede responsibility of maintaining a strong fire department for the residents she is supposed to represent is a clear indicator that she knows it’s wrong.”
Donnelly’s final quote to the Globe reads, “In discussing with my members what involvement they thought was appropriate in this campaign, and then reading the distorted facts coming from Ms. Collum’s camp, it became clear that a full endorsement of Deborah Davis Ford, backed up with political action that will see our firefighters going door to door to talk to the residents they protect every day, was the only viable option.”
South Orange and Maplewood leaders have been working for the last 2-1/2 years on a potential consolidation of the two towns’ fire departments. Fire department consolidations have been rare in New Jersey — despite calls statewide to consolidate services across the state’s 565 municipalities in order to improve efficiency and save money in a tax-stressed state. A consolidation of four departments in Hudson County in 1998 met with opposition from firefighting unions, however, the NJ FMBA and its locals say that they are not against merging departments in the case of Maplewood and South Orange.
The Maplewood/South Orange merger would be the first such collaboration between a civil service and non-civil service town and is being watched closely by other towns and fire departments around the state.
At a March 25 South Orange Board of Trustees meeting, Collum reported to Trustees that South Orange was recommending a shared governance joint meeting structure with civil service (South Orange is civil service; Maplewood is not) to Maplewood leaders, after a March 18 meeting with the state’s shared services “czars.”
A campaign mailer sent by Davis Ford’s SOForward campaign on April 12, accused Collum of working to “kill” the South Orange fire department, endanger union jobs and compromise public safety with unsafe staffing levels for the South Orange firehouse.
The flier attracted backlash from many community members and rebuttals from other elected officials in both Maplewood and South Orange. Collum and other South Orange and Maplewood officials involved in the negotiations have stated that Davis Ford knew that staffing levels reported in her campaign’s flier were inaccurate and had been negotiated upward a year and half ago. (Read a report on Collum’s rebuttal here.)
Davis Ford has defended the flier as shining a spotlight on the issue of share fire services.
In a post to the community earlier this week, Maplewood Mayor Vic DeLuca wrote, “It would be a huge loss for one or both governing bodies to walk away from this opportunity because of political pressure. With a consolidated fire department more personnel and equipment will be on the scene faster and be under a unified command structure. Additionally, in two tax strapped towns it would be irresponsible for elected officials not to explore ways to share services and deliver those services more efficiently.”
Both South Orange local FMBAs (#40 and 240) have announced that they are endorsing Davis Ford and her SOForward slate.
In an interview on Tuesday, Maplewood Fire Capt. and FMBA local 25 rep Chris Ariemma told Village Green that the Maplewood FMBA is “not backing a candidate” and “not putting out an op-ed” as their colleagues in South Orange had done.
However Ariemma said that Maplewood firefighters did want a place at the table in merger discussions — as he offered scenarios for EMS configuration and also said that Maplewood firefighters are open to civil service if they can be assured of parity.
“We’re not against this,” said Ariemma, “but we want to be a part of it too.”
Village Green has reached out to South Orange firefighters for comment; read about their response here. Michael Commins of the South Orange FMBA 240 told Wildstein, ““The real concern is that what Ms. Collum has said in the past doesn’t jive with what she is saying now, under the microscope of an election campaign. This is politics at its worst, and something that could have been largely avoided had she been more open about her plans for the future of public safety in South Orange.”
[Note: David Wildstein, founder and editor of the New Jersey Globe, is a former mayor of Livingston, NJ; a former official at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey; the founder of PoliticsNJ.com; and was sentenced to three years probation for his role in “Bridgegate.” ]