In a post to her campaign page tonight, South Orange Village President Sheena Collum called a negative campaign flier by the SO Forward slate “false and misleading,” and rebutted claims made in the mailing to South Orange voters.
The 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.
Village Green also interviewed Deborah Davis Ford, who is challenging Collum for Village President n May 4 and who leads the SO Forward slate. Read our interview with Davis Ford here.
Collum rebutted the flier on 6 points:
- Claim: “If Sheena Collum’s disastrous public safety plan passes, say goodbye to the South Orange Fire Department.”
Response: As a consolidated department between Maplewood and South Orange, the Fire Department would be reconstituted and referred to as the “Maplewood-South Orange Fire Department” or the “South Orange-Maplewood Fire Department”. The naming convention chosen is completely irrelevant – just as our shared school district is known as the South Orange and Maplewood School District (SOMSD) – both communities are still represented.
- Claim: “She would give up our fire department to Maplewood.”
Response: With all municipal collaborations, a “lead agency” must always be identified, such as with our shared municipal court. Having one town lead does not mean the other town abdicates, especially given the reports last month to each governing body in identifying a Joint Meeting as a potential structure with assistance from the state.
- Claim: “There will be less firefighters protecting us – and unions jobs will be lost.”
Response: More than incorrect, what will transpire is the complete opposite. Jobs will not be lost and titles and seniority will not change. The consolidation means a new and much larger department scheduled to ensure more firefighters respond to fires than current response levels.
- Claim: “Shifts will reduce from 8 firefighters to 3 firefighters.”
Response: This is an incorrect misdirection of facts. Each tour of duty in both South Orange and Maplewood has what is frequently referred to as “minimum staffing requirements” and that will not change. The Maplewood FD utilizes a four-platoon system, with nine to ten personnel assigned per shift, and an eight-person minimum staffing level, whereas, the South Orange FD uses a three-platoon system, with each platoon comprised of eight members and a six-person minimum staffing level. Both fire departments will retain the same current minimum staffing level, almost doubling the response of firefighters in both towns responding to a primary alarm.
- Claim: “Collum’s plan to kill our fire department only saves homes $10 per year.”
Response: This is incorrect. For example, in 2018 alone, South Orange taxpayers incurred $567,540.48 in “overtime” costs. We cannot afford to subsidize inefficiencies in any department, particularly the one representing the second largest cost-driver in our municipal budget. Eliminating excessive overtime by operating a smaller department amounts to $100 a household minimally, and more important than cost saving or cost avoidance is the better delivery of fire services to our two towns.
- Claim: There is an unreleased draft document that Collum has stood by and refused to make public. We [the South Orange Forward campaign] “call on Village President Sheena Collum to release the full draft proposal immediately.”
Response: As the current Village President, I take my fiduciary responsibility very seriously and will not breach my oath of office or agreements authorized by the governing body by prematurely releasing draft documents considered “consultative and deliberative.” However, it’s important to note, with all negotiations, documents become dated during the process. For example, meetings in March – with representatives from the state, both town’s fire departments and union representatives – will factor into how we approach this consolidation; those details are not yet ready for public release and there are still many decisions to be made. As always, all final agreements will follow our long-standing, statutory process of introduction, public comment, and any necessary amendments or final adoption.
Village Green spoke with Collum via phone after reading the rebuttal to ask followup questions to both her rebuttal and to assertions made earlier today by Deborah Davis Ford — who is challenging Collum for Village President on May 4 and who leads the SO Forward slate.
Collum explained that the consolidation process is being handled by a management committee made up of both “mayors” (Collum and Maplewood Mayor Vic DeLuca), both Chairs of Public Safety (Howard Levison in South Orange and Maplewood Deputy Mayor Frank McGehee — with Maplewood Township Committeeman Greg Lembrich also involved as a holdover from a change in leadership in Maplewood), both township administrators, and both township attorneys.
However, Collum said, other Board of Trustee members get updates from the management committee — which has been working on a joint meeting proposal. Collum said that Davis Ford is aware that Collum is supporting a joint meeting configuration. “Deborah knew about the joint meeting. When she says she takes credit for it, I outlined for the BOT every organizational structure …. and the pros and cons, but I did not work against any option.” Collum said she “absolutely recognizes that Deborah and the full governing body had a preference one way and that preference is joint meeting.” Collum said that structure was discussed with the state “share services czars” at a meeting in March and “Deborah is aware of that.” In fact, Collum gave an update at a BOT meeting two weeks ago (see the meeting video here; update at 2:47:58).
Note: A review of the video also reveals Collum saying that South Orange is recommending a joint meeting with civil service.
With regard to Davis Ford’s remark to Village Green that she prefers a regional fire department model, Collum said that although many fire departments will say they are willing to go regional or countywide — which Davis Ford said she supports instead of a two-town merger — “that is a massive step and will take more time and money.” Collum said that going from one to two towns is the best course of action. “Two successfully merged will ultimately bring in a 3rd and a 4th. etc.” said Collum, “It also leads to a fair share of cost.”
Collum also said that even if the towns decided to go with Maplewood as lead agency “there will and can be mechanisms put in place to ensure there is accountability to South Orange through a fire services board” — a mechanism that Collum said Davis Ford is aware of.
With regard to the claim that the South Orange firehouse on Sloan Street would be reduced to three staffers, in addition to the response above, Collum noted that the managing committee was “uncomfortable with 3 and negotiated to six — which Deborah is aware of.”
Collum concluded her rebuttal with this statement, “I welcome the opportunity to discuss this further and encourage you to contact me. Additionally, our campaign is trying to coordinate a series of debates and would like to cover this as a stand-alone issue.”