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Hydrangea on the Edge of Blooming

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Never actually boring

H.L. Mencken, the great critic of American political life, had this to say about events like the Fire Commissioners' meetings:  

"Herein lies the chief merit of democracy, when all is said and done; it may be clumsy, it may be swinish, it may be unutterably incompetent and dishonest, but it is never dismal-its processes, even when they irritate, never actually bore."

Which is what makes writing about them so difficult.  When you attend a meeting like last night, you are struck by all those qualities.  If I were a New York Drama Critic, "Irritating But Not Boring" might be a good headline for my review.  If I were an investigative reporter for a particularly aggressive newspaper, "Swinish, Unutterably Incompetent and Dishonest" would be the more likely running head.

But, the thing is, to get either or both of those judgments, you'd have to have been there. The major issue of the meeting, as a result of the previous meeting on Sept. 5, was the Fire Chief's contract.  To do justice to the meeting, it really does not suffice simply to summarize what the posted contract says.  Nevertheless, that's what i'll be doing next.  

(The posted contract, signed September 5 is located here if you're inclined to read it.  Sections A and B (section B was under discussion last night is here.)  Section B is where 'errors' were 'corrected' and it is at the bottom of the linked pages.)

The changes were made in Section B which primarily addresses benefits.  The original Section B (from September 5) provoked a lot of irritation from residents, especially because it provided pretty much full-time benefits (e.g, 10 hours of vacation for each month's work) for a half-time job.  The new Section B offers only 3.3 hrs. per month, which means that for half-time work he is getting 1/3 time vacation.  He is still being given a bunch of accrued vacation hours at the beginning of his contract, but now it is 40 hours and in the earlier Section B it was 120 hours.  Similarly, sick leave is reduced, and all pay for holidays has been eliminated.

This is rather a worse deal for the new fire chief, but the real question, of course, is why a contract vetted by legal counsel for both parties and read and approved by the commissioners ever included such hyper-generous benefits.  This would seem to fall under the 'incompetence' headline rather than, say, 'swinish'.  If the public had not objected strongly, the earlier version of the contract would have doubtless been a done deal and the district's lawyers would have billed for their apparently useless or worse advice.

Beyond that, the posted contract provides some clarification on other issues:

1.  If fired without cause, the Chief will receive 1 year's severance pay.
2.  If fired with cause, mediation and arbitration are somewhere between required and available, but the costs involved could surely keep the chief from entering into it since, if he loses, he must pay the district's costs (and vice versa, but the District has the deeper pockets--Us!).
3.  The Commissioners must give 180 days notice if they plan not to renew the Chief's contract.
4.  The Chief must give 30 days notice if he is going to quit.

The rest of the meeting (and there was a long agenda) involved any number of issues that illustrated the public's difficulty in understanding what the Commissioners are doing and the Commissioners' inability to respond meaningfully to public questions.  This general confusion is multiplied by the State's requirement that virtually all business be conducted ONLY in public meetings, which means that the commissioners are not supposed to be discussing and making decisions outside of those meetings.  This is a very difficult standard to meet, but I didn't ask for these guys to take this job, so they need to meet the standard....it's sort of like the conditions of an employment contract.

Meursing demonstrated several times that he still has a short fuse and at one point seemed to be about to eject a community member from the meeting with the assistance of the sheriff's deputy when he suddenly remembered that he'd failed to bring a sheriff's deputy to the meeting.  The "critical" issue under discussion that led to this unseemly behavior was whether having an additional special meeting on September 20 whose sole purpose was to approve the minutes of the meeting of September 19 was, in fact, a redundant meeting.  The underlying issue was their intention of appointing a new commissioner at the meeting on the 19th and then approving the minutes ASAP/September 20 (requires a public meeting to do so) so the new commissioner could attend the next regular meeting as a duly appointed commissioner because they need two Commissioners to constitute a quorum and Meursing won't be available for the October meeting, but anyway the October meeting is being re-scheduled so that Meursing can attend the October meeting (next agenda item), and aren't you glad you've read to the end of this paragraph?

What can I say?  Echoing Mencken, I'd say "never dismal," adding oftentimes hilarious in its stupidity and its smallness.  But I appreciate that it loses a lot of its 'not boring-ness' in translation.  Remember: Both Riffle and the new Commissioner will be up for election in 2013.  Vote early and often...

And in the meantime, a lot of Wednesday night meetings are available for your dining and dancing pleasure...

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