TERRE HAUTE, Ind. — Prairieton Township Trustee David F. Phelps has spent 50 years volunteering on the township’s volunteer fire department, but a 2012 law may require that he leave the fire department if he wins re-election as trustee in November.
Phelps, a Republican, is unopposed for trustee. He has served as township trustee for 20 years. Now Phelps said he is questioning if he can continue in that role because of a state law that targets nepotism and conflict of interest. It’s an issue being reviewed by the Indiana Volunteer Firefighters Association.
Phelps said he believes his role as township trustee has no conflict of interest, as he has no direct financial supervision over the Prairieton Volunteer Fire Department. Instead, the department is funded through a fire protection district.
“The district has its own fire protection tax rate and its own board. I, as a trustee, have nothing to do whatsoever with the money that goes to the fire department,” Phelps said.
“Since I am now retired, my only option is to resign from the fire department,” Phelps said. “I could volunteer in Linton Township, but I have 50 years on this department and hate to lose that.”
Phelps has been recognized for his efforts as a firefighter. In December 2003, he saw a house on fire. After knocking and getting no response, he kicked in the front door to the home. He was able to warn and get the homes’ residents out, including a woman who was eight months pregnant. He then helped responding firefighters to extinguish the fire.
For that effort, he received the Indiana State Fire Marshall’s medal of valor on Jan. 24, 2004.
The issue is of concern to the Indiana Volunteer Firefighters Association.
“The way the law reads, you cannot serve on a fire department in which you contract with or be on a fire department that provides fire protection services [to a township or city], so how do you interpret that?,” said David Israel, president of the association.
“It is a question we have been trying to get answered,” said Israel, who is also running unopposed in November for Clay Township Trustee in Decatur County. Israel is also fire chief of the Burney-Clay Township Volunteer Fire Department.
Israel, as trustee, said he contracts directly with the Burney-Clay Township VFD to provide fire protection. Israel said the firefighters’ association has 500 of its 16,000 members that will be affected by the sate law, Israel said.
“There is a checks and balance on the money. My books get audited like everyone else every three years by the State Board of Accounts. I don’t know what the big deal was, but the only thing I can say now is there are two classes of people who cannot run for public office — criminals and volunteer firefighters,” Israel said.
The law does not restrict volunteer or paid firefighters from seeking elected offices to other positions where they are not employed or provide services.
Issue discussed in General Assembly
State Rep. Alan Morrison, R-Terre Haute, said the issue was discussed in this year’s session of the Indiana General Assembly. Morrison said he supported House Bill 1007, authored by Rep. Lloyd Arnold, that “deletes the provisions that prohibit volunteer firefighters from assuming or holding certain elected offices.” The bill did not make it out of a House committee.
“Without a doubt there are things that needed to be addressed and there are good aspects [of the state law], but this part that deals with volunteers in small communities who are trying to help in more than one way, I think it is unfortunate that we are making them choose” whether or not to stay on a volunteer fire department.
Mark C. Spelbring, a Democratic candidate who will face Morrison in the November election, said “if you don’t have a direct financial tie to the organization or if you are not approving the budget of the department you are working with, I don’t think that should be a restriction,” Spelbring said.
“Volunteers firefighters are hard to get, and you don’t need to be putting restrictions if they are not in a situation where they are approving the budget that they are a part of,” he said.
The law could also impact Rick Long, who is seeking re-election as Lost Creek Township Trustee, a position he has held for 16 years while serving 36 years a volunteer fireman, as well as David Brown, who is seeking re-election as Pierson Township Trustee. Brown has been a volunteer firefighter for 45 years.
Long and Brown each said that if they are required to step down, each would retire from their prospective volunteer fire departments.
However, Long said Friday that he contacted the Indiana Township Association about the issue. “The association said that since Lost Creek Township does not provide any type of fire service money, the law would not affect me. There is no conflict since the township has nothing to do with fire protection,” Long said, adding that the township has a fire protection district to fund the Seelyville Volunteer Fire Department.
Rep. Kevin Mahan, R-Hartford City, lead author of the bill that became law, told the Trbune-Star in 2012 that the bill targets volunteer firemen “simply because you would be in a position to raise taxes and you can vote to spend money,” he said. “In some areas, some volunteer firemen are paid.”
Brown said that as trustee, he contracts for fire protection. Brown remains a firefighter, but would step down if required. At age 63, Brown said he has “no real desire to be out there dragging hoses and fighting fires.”
Some other Wabash Valley legislators and candidates in the November election are looking at the issue. Bionca Gambill, a Democratic candidate in District 45, and Bruce Borders, a former state representative and the Republican candidate in District 45, each said the would review the issue.
“It seems like this is the nature of the state legislature in the past that there may be one bad apple, so our reaction is everybody has to pay the consequences for one bad apple. Yes there has been bad trustees who have done some improprieties, but there has also been bad auditors, secretaries of state and bad governors in Illinois, for example,” she said.
Gambill, a former Linton Township trustee of 20 years who had a contract with the township for fire protection, said she thinks the state legislature “needs to gather around the table and say this needs to be revisited as it is hurting instead of helping local communities and fire departments. Why make it increasingly more difficult for the townships.”
Bruce Borders, who served as a state representative from 1990 to 2010, when he lost re-election after a statewide redistricting, said the state law was passed to ensure family members were not being placed into positions. “My concern would be to make sure in tweaking it, that there is not allowing an episode of undue influence,” he said. “We had situations where there was a trustee and several people working were family members and there was not checks and balance. Before conceding anything, I would want to make sure there is a checks and balance … a true guardianship,” Borders said.
“My bottom line is to make sure the taxpayers have as much protection a possible,” Borders said.
District 38 state Sen. Tim Skinner, a Democrat, said the law “goes back to [former] Gov. Daniels. I never support that, because as you get out into the township level, you have people, sometimes second and third generation people, who are serving on the fire department. You can’t find people in the townships who have the time to dedicate themselves to these jobs that absolutely need to be done, so it ends up in a handful of people who willingly take these things on. Then when you pass a piece of legislation to restrict them from doing that, to me, it just doesn’t make any sense.
“When you put your volunteer fire departments in peril, unnecessarily, who is going to step up? We can’t do without these jobs. We don’t like to pay for them and nobody wants to help finance these things, but they are absolutely necessary entities within our local government,” Skinner said.
“This is a consequence of passing sweeping local government reform legislation, and I definitely think something needs to be done,” Skinner said.
Jon Ford, a Republican candidate for the District 38 state senate seat, said he thinks the law applies to people who have a direct financial involvement or a contract to provide fire services. “If you don’t have any direct financial tie to the organization or you are not approving the budget for those services, I don’t think that should be a restriction,” Ford said.
“Volunteer firefighters are hard to get and you don’t need restrictions if they are not in a situation where they are approving the budget for the entity that they are a part of,” Ford said.
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