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Leadership lacking in fire mess

November 25, 2014
By Barry Underwood , Westfield Republican

I write this as a follow-up to the commentary by village of Westfield Trustee Debra Puckhaber, that appeared in the Nov. 20 Republican.

I am the former chairman of the Board of Fire Commissioners, and held that position during the events detailed in Trustee Puckhaber's letter. As part of serving in that capacity I sat on the January 2014 hearing panel for the suspended officers of the Fire Department. I was also present at the Oct. 20 Village Board meeting in which Past Fire Chief William Bills requested clarifying information concerning the terminated fire chief and treasurer.

The reason I am writing today is to address the tiresome efforts of a small minority of the department, which includes Bills who rally around the former chief and the former treasurer of their department. I am also writing to call upon current members of the village of Westfield Board of Trustees, the mayor of Westfield, and the supervisor for the town of Westfield to display some leadership in addressing this faction of the Fire Department who continue to drag the department down.

During my tenure as chairman of the Board of Fire Commissioners we were barraged by personnel issues from day one. From a member pretending to be an EMT to the matters that are the subject of this article. The uncovering of misconduct by the Fire Department leadership concerning the handling of public funds, as well as the supervision of those entrusted with public funds. It was apparent this had become an accepted practice within the Fire Department, and we as commissioners made the decision to put an end to this long-standing practice once and for all. And of course when you try to police people that cannot police themselves, you get painted as the bad guys.

The work of the commissioners, and the hearing panel was unpopular with some of the senior members of the Fire Department. They spouted they were being mistreated in the media. The fact is they were the only ones bringing their "dirty laundry" to the media.

The suspended chief even posted about it on Facebook. And it blew up in their face. As hard as it was, and as much as we wanted to tell our side of the story, we as commissioners remained confidential.

Despite their negativity, we were the people who did the right thing. We acted on behalf of the taxpayers and donors to this worthy cause. We followed the law and proper procedure. It was not a pleasant experience, but one that was necessary to hold those responsible, accountable. And don't give me the "we are volunteers" thing. That's no excuse.

We were volunteers too. In fact I was a former volunteer of that department for 15 years but being a volunteer does not give you an excuse to do the wrong thing with public money.

This was not a close call. The evidence in this case was overwhelming. The hearing panel who weighed the evidence came to a unanimous decision. Yet, here we are nearly a year later listening to Past Chief Bills, and other senior members of the department going to bat for the former chief and the department treasurer (who is the former chief's father) who jeopardized the integrity of the entire department. Are you kidding me?

Unfortunately, their efforts have been empowered by the actions of the mayor of Westfield, two of the current trustees for the village of Westfield, and the inaction by the supervisor for the Town of Westfield. Mayor Michael VandeVelde, and each of the village trustees received regular briefings about the misconduct of the fire department leadership. Despite that knowledge, Mayor VandeVelde, Deputy Mayor Rob Cochran, and newly elected Trustee Mike Catalano showed their appreciation to the commissioners by voting to disband the Board of Fire Commissioners following the hearing panel's decision to terminate the duties of the fire chief and department treasurer. Only trustees Dave Brooker and Puckhaber protected the interests of their constituents by voting to retain the Board of Fire Commissioners.

Should these trustees or VandeVelde run for re-election, the voters should not forget who VandeVelde, Cochran and Catalano decided to protect, instead of sending a loud and clear message that misconduct on one of their village's most important departments will not be tolerated.

One must also wonder why our town supervisor Martha Bills has also been so silent during this series of events. As her constituents also fund the village Fire Department, she should have shown leadership by publicly supporting the commissioners and the hearing panel as they worked to protect the taxpayer. Maybe it is because her husband is the afore mentioned Past Chief William Bills. The silence from her office, as well as the entire Town Board, has been deafening.

It is now time for our governmental leadership to stand behind those who did the right thing. The Board of Fire Commissioners and the Hearing Panel. If they don't, then they should be reminded of what their job is on the next Election Day. Their Fire Department is being dragged down by a small, but vocal minority who has gotten accustomed to getting things their way, and portraying the wrongdoers are the victims.

It is time for that to stop. They need to accept that justice has been served, and may be served further. Stop picking at the scab, (as one of my good friends phrased it) and let the wounds of the department heal. The members of the department that are there for the right reasons and doing a great job, do not deserve it.

It is not too late for you to be leaders.

Barry Underwood is a Westfield resident.



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