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Thursday, October 13, 2011

GAZETTE ARTICLE -Proposal to restructure Prince George’s fire commission sparks rush to compromise

A plan to restructure the Prince George’s County Fire Commission drew fierce criticism Wednesday from volunteer firefighters and County Council members, who said they would try to reach a compromise before a Tuesday deadline.
The plan, outlined in an executive order and a bill submitted to the council by County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) last month, would change the role and composition of the commission, which currently has nine members elected by the county’s volunteer stations and controls about $12 million of the county’s fire/EMS budget.
Under the proposal, members would be appointed by the county executive, as is standard for other commissions in the county, and would serve as advisers to the fire chief, who would have authority over the budget. Commission members would also be required to live in the county, which is not currently a requirement.
Several dozen volunteer firefighters showed up at the meeting of the Public Safety and Fiscal Management Committee, which is made up of County Council members, to show their opposition to the proposal.
With Tuesday being the last day that legislation can be introduced in the council this year and Baker’s administration unwilling to pull the bill to make changes, council members found themselves faced with either rushing to amend the bill Wednesday to allow for a compromise or killing it outright.
Ultimately, the committee voted to move the proposal with no recommendation — which would allow council members including Will Campos (D-Dist. 2) of Hyattsville, chairman of the committee, to meet with volunteers and try to make the plan more to their liking.
“I have an issue with the position Mr. Baker has put is in,” Campos said. “It’s very concerning.”
Baker’s staff defended the proposal at the hearing.
“This is in no way an attack on the volunteer service,” Kerry Watson, Baker’s liaison to the council, told the committee Wednesday. “There is no way this county can survive without active, vibrant volunteer participation.”
Fire Chief Marc Bashoor told the committee that the changes were entirely administrative and should have no effect on the work of the average firefighter.
But council members were not satisfied, citing concerns that had been raised to them by volunteer companies.
“It’s a finger right in their eye,” said Councilwoman Mary Lehman (D-Dist. 1) of Laurel. “They are left with, I believe, virtually no authority.”
Several volunteer officials testified against the bill, arguing that they had not been adequately included in discussions about reorganizing the commission and wanted to give more input.
“Are we willing to talk? Most definitely,” Glenn Sherman, president of the Prince George’s County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association, told the committee. “Pull the bill. Let’s talk. Let’s come up with an answer.”
Some county municipalities, such as Greenbelt, Berwyn Heights and New Carrollton, have opposed the legislation.
At one point in the hearing, Councilman Mel Franklin (D-Dist. 9) of Upper Marlboro brought forth an amended version of the bill intended to make the changes more palatable to volunteers. The proposed changes included expanding the commission to 11 members, five of which would be volunteers, and giving individual stations more control over their budgets.
Franklin withdrew the amendments when council members said they would not be able to vote on them Wednesday without more time to review them.

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