The proposed merger between the Volunteer Fire Department and Trousdale County EMS has led to some contentious debate over the past couple of months. So I expected a few fireworks, figuratively speaking, at Monday night’s County Commission work session.
After watching that meeting, though, all I can say is “Wow.” One commissioner commented to me afterward that he was the glad the mayor was on vacation and was not there to stream the meeting via Facebook video. He was entirely correct. Monday night was an absolutely disgraceful performance from all sides of the debate and Trousdale County deserves better.
The problems started with a comment from one commissioner that, in retrospect, he probably wishes he hadn’t made. When a concern was raised as to whether the volunteer firefighters might quit if a merger goes through, it was said (I’m paraphrasing), “If they want to quit, we appreciate their service and they can go to hell.”
At that point, one commissioner walked out and shortly after, there was a page for all firefighters to report to the fire hall for a special called meeting. I thought being a tattletale was something most of us grew out of after childhood. Apparently some of us didn’t.
The last part of that comment was unnecessary but personally, I tend to agree. If maintaining their little clique is more important than serving the people of Trousdale County, maybe they don’t need to be there. If I walked out on my job because I didn’t like directives from higher up the corporate chain, there probably would be some sentiment of “Oh, well. We need to find someone else to do the job.” Is there much difference?
Later in the meeting, a number of firefighters showed up and criticized commissioners for that “go to hell” comment. No problem there, and to his credit, the member in question owned up to his remark. The volunteers work hard and didn’t deserve that.
But that criticism turned into an attack, with one firefighter saying, “We’re not asked once about nothing. It’s just assumed we’re going to be told.” Yes, the input of the firefighters and EMS personnel is an invaluable asset in determining how this merger should be handled and commissioners should listen to them. I find it interesting that so far at various meetings addressing this merger, no fire personnel have spoken out one way or the other.
But ultimately, the County Commission can tell the Fire Department how it will be organized. That’s one of its defined roles in the charter – making decisions about organization of county government. It’s not about screwing the Fire Department or the personnel.
Then came accusations of “stacking” the Emergency Services Committee to ensure a favorable recommendation on merging the groups. Then another commissioner was called out publicly by another for referring to county government as “corrupt” via social media.
At one point the chairman of the Commission was accused by another member of lying about his reasons for not putting that member on the Emergency Committee.
It was an embarrassment and something I’ve never witnessed in roughly 4½ years of covering county government. Personally, I think the blame starts at the top with a chairman more concerned about folks raising their hands to be recognized than with properly running the meeting and maintaining a sense of decorum. There are 20 commissioners and keeping those egos in check can’t be an easy task, but it needs to be handled a heck of a lot better than it currently is.
Even the audience got in on the act to some extent. When the county attorney and experts from the state were asked if the charter permitted such a merger, the response was that by their interpretation, yes, it does. Then one citizen asked, “So this is a way around the law?” No, citizen, it’s not. It’s saying the charter, which is the law for the county, allows this because there’s nothing in there that says it doesn’t. No case law, no precedent.
I’m not a lawyer, but the charter says, “The Commission may by ordinance establish or amend any plan of administrative organization.” Sounds plain to me that yes, the Commission can reorganize the departments and a charter amendment isn’t needed.
One audience member, thankfully, showed a better sense of professionalism and asked good questions as to why the opponents felt a merger was a bad idea and for their reasons it shouldn’t happen.
He couldn’t get a straight answer; nothing better than being afraid of what might happen. If being afraid of the future were a reason not to act, we’d never get anything done in government.
I fully support merging the fire and EMS departments, even though there are questions remaining about the process. A healthy debate over the proposal is a good thing and is how government should operate. But that debate needs to take place in public and be handled in a civil fashion, not via social media and echo chambers.
The cesspool that developed Monday night amid our county commissioners was completely unprofessional behavior. If that’s how our leadership is going to act, we need new leadership. Grow the hell up, people.
Chris Gregory is managing editor of The Hartsville Vidette. Reach him at 615-374-3556 or firstname.lastname@example.org.