Firefighters from Oak Bluffs and across Massachusetts, wearing bright yellow T shirts emblazoned with “Keep politics out of public safety,” packed the Oak Bluffs library meeting room to plead with selectmen to restore firefighting duties to paramedics.
Third district vice president of the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF) Jay Colbert led the charge while surrounded by Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts president Richard Mackinnon Jr., secretary-treasurer Billy Cabral, and firefighters from Brockton, Foxboro, Fall River, and Randolph.
Last year, the fire department voted to unionize, which has caused issues between the union and town Fire Chief John Rose. In October, the town voted to divide the firefighter/EMS duties into two separate departments, eliminating firefighter duties from the firefighter/paramedics, which has been the catalyst behind the IAFF dispute with the town — resulting in a state labor case in Boston in which the union is charging the town with 23 violations of fair labor practices. Hearings on some of them have been held and both the town and union are awaiting rulings.
The gathering at Tuesday’s selectmen’s meeting was the culmination of several hours spent before the meeting walking around downtown Oak Bluffs, handing out fliers asking the public to call selectmen and restore firefighting duties.
Forced to sit through a lengthy agenda, the firefighters waited patiently before making their case during the public comment section at the end of the meeting.
“I came down here with an open mind, knowing that you guys had asked me in town. We thought it was going to be a seamless transition — it hasn’t quite worked out that way,” Colbert said of the firefighters voting to unionize, “You had a good product. In 2013 you invested in 10 firefighters to get trained up to be paramedics and firefighters; this town had a good product.”
Colbert said the disparaging comments made about the firefighters have been false. Calling the division of firefighter and EMS duties a “travesty,” Colbert said there was a “real public safety issue” and “impending doom” in not allowing duties to be shared: “These negotiations I’ve been hopeful for have turned into a nightmare.”
“We’re here really to make sure we protect everyone, whether that’s Oak Bluffs or Boston firefighters,” Colbert said before thanking the selectmen.
Typically, selectmen don’t respond to public comments at meetings, but selectman Brian Packish said he took issue with Colbert’s “impending doom” comment. A few months ago, Packish said, he had a medical emergency requiring him to be brought out of his house on a stretcher by some of the paramedics who were in the room — both paid and volunteer personnel.
“I know we’ll get through this chapter, and I understand that there’s some challenges. I look forward to when we get to the other side of this. I look forward to when we have a union — it doesn’t bother me either way,” Packish said. “To project that on our community and imply that somehow someone is deficient or could be deficient, it’s unfair. I read your shirts to ‘Keep politics out of public safety,’ and I would encourage you to do the same thing.”
Diplomatically, Packish asked for one of the yellow T shirts. “I’d love to have one of those shirts. I wear a large if you can drop one by,” he said.
In other business, Vineyard Youth Tennis chairman Chris Scott asked for the selectmen’s endorsement of a modification to the tennis center’s special permit.
Scott met with the selectmen two weeks ago, but was asked to come back with a more detailed plan of the modifications. The tennis center wants to charge fees for lessons and allow for adult play to cover the nearly $250,000 a year in operating costs that used to be covered by longtime donor Gerry DeBlois.
The selectmen approved a motion to endorse Scott’s proposal to modify the tennis center’s special permit. Scott will now head to the zoning board of appeals, who issued the original special permit, for further approval.
Town accountant Deb Potter and finance committee member Bill Vrooman met with selectmen to discuss end-of-the-year transfers. She made specific note of the police department going $73,000 over budget.
Vrooman asked selectmen to review the fiscal practices of the police department, saying the police department has repeatedly received “significant” transfers for going over budget since fiscal year 2015, the smallest being $35,000.
Chairman Gail Barmakian asked Police Chief Erik Blake if there was a plan to avoid the overspending.
“The amount of money that we actually budget for the amount of time we’re actually making them take off is not covered in my additional salaries budget,” Chief Blake said. “There’s just not enough money in that line item to cover even the amount of money I know we’re spending.”
The over budget expense is a combination of paying officer salaries, time off, and unforeseen expenses such as paternity leave, medical leave, and employees leaving the department.
Speaking to The Times on the phone Wednesday, Chief Blake said the department now requires officers to take paid time off each year, instead of allowing them to accrue it.
Chief Blake plans to meet with Potter each month to make sure the department is staying on budget to the best of its ability.
“Moving forward, we’ll have to keep an eye on it,” Barmakian said.