Conn. VFD members file petitions to revoke automatic aid ordinance, budget governance
If the petitions are verified, the City Council at its next meeting would have to schedule a special election within 30 days for voters to decide whether to keep or repeal each ordinance
The Day, New London, Conn.
NORWICH, Conn. — Volunteer firefighters have submitted petitions with hundreds of signatures in an effort to call for a citywide vote on two controversial ordinances approved Dec. 5, one mandating automatic aid between the paid and volunteer fire departments and one governing the purchase of fire equipment.
The city charter allows residents to petition to force a special election of registered city voters on non-budgetary ordinances approved by the City Council. The petitions, filed Monday, the deadline for challenging the ordinance, included dozens of pages with hundreds of signatures.
The city clerk's staff will be working to verify the number of signatures by registered Norwich voters. Each petition must contain 1,042 verified signatures to force a citywide vote on whether to repeal each ordinance.
City Clerk Betsy Barrett said if the petitions are verified, the City Council at its Jan. 3 meeting would have to schedule a special election within 30 days for voters to decide whether to keep or repeal each ordinance. The election technically is not a referendum, Barrett said, because the city charter requires a vote by registered voters, rather than just Norwich residents.
City election officials would have to order ballots, make absentee ballots available, secure polling places and poll workers as with any election, Barrett said.
The ordinances became controversial as soon as they were submitted by Democratic Council President Pro Tempore Joseph DeLucia, chairman of the Public Safety Committee, and Democratic Alderman and Public Safety Committee member Tracey Burto.
Both were approved by 4-3 votes, with the council's four Democrats voting in favor, and Republican Mayor Peter Nystrom and the two Republican aldermen in opposition. Nystrom, a strong supporter of volunteer fire services, signed the petition and solicited signatures on Sunday. Republican Alderwoman Stacy Gould, a volunteer firefighter with the East Great Plain Volunteer Fire Department, said she "helped a little," and did sign the petition.
The automatic aid ordinance, called "auto-aid," requires the central city paid fire department to respond to all structure fires in any of the city's five volunteer districts. The equipment purchases ordinance calls for, "Centralized purchasing protocol and common apparatus and equipment specification, procurement and replacement procedure."
City Manager John Salomone and the five volunteer chiefs had reached an agreement on auto-aid in October and launched it Nov. 1. The goal is to speed up response to fires in volunteer districts with the staffed, paid fire crews already on duty and to supplement paid crews in the urban district.
But the next day, after learning of DeLucia's ordinance to codify the practice, the five volunteer chiefs abruptly withdrew their support for the city manager's agreement.
Auto-aid was put in place nevertheless and remains active.
Taftville volunteer Fire Chief Timothy Jencks said Tuesday the petition does not seek to abolish auto-aid, "but to put the auto aid decisions back in the hands of the fire chiefs and the city manager," Jencks said.
"Automatic aid isn't going anywhere," Jencks said. "Any fire chief would be stupid to turn it down. This is to put it in the hands of the city manager and the fire chiefs," Jencks said.
He said the apparatus and equipment ordinance aims to "get rid of six trucks." Instead, he said the pending upgrade of the fire dispatch system should help the city deploy those trucks better. That system should be allowed to work before any major decisions are made, Jencks said.
Nystrom is a staunch opponent of the two ordinances.
He blamed DeLucia for stirring up the controversy by introducing an ordinance after the fire chiefs and city manager already had worked out an automatic aid agreement. He criticized paid Fire Chief Tracy Montoya, who learned about the ordinance shortly before it was made public, for not telling the volunteer chiefs about it.
"It's something that wasn't planned," Nystrom said of the special election, "wasn't budgeted, but it's a remedy the charter provides."
DeLucia said he heard about the petition over the weekend, and said the volunteers have a right to circulate the petitions. DeLucia questioned whether the chiefs would continue to support automatic aid if the ordinances are repealed by voters.
"On the very first day, they signed a letter and walked away from it, so I don't know how to respond to that," DeLucia said.
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