January 26 – COPENHAGEN – A special Tuesday evening meeting of the Copenhagen Village Council to discuss the recently released financial and state security audits consisted of a lengthy executive session with a number of parties concerned with service challenges of fire.
Participants in the executive session included Mayor Mark Souva, who attended virtually, and the four village administrators; Fire Department Chief TJ Williams; representatives from the four cities that pay the Copenhagen Fire Department for its firefighting services, including Denmark, Pinckney, Harrisburg and Champion; Lewis County Executive Ryan M. Piche; County Fire and Emergency Management Director Robert MacKenzie; and new village attorney Candace Randall of Campany, McArdle & Randall, PLLC law firm in Lowville.
The main reason given for the closed session was attorney-client privilege, but trustee Kimberly Vogt said after the meeting that contract negotiations with cities for their fire districts and personnel issues were also in game during the executive session.
“Our lawyer being new, we had to make sure we were doing it right,” Ms Vogt said.
“Things” that needed to be resolved included the Office of the State Comptroller’s financial audit findings that $27,334 of the $110,469 in disbursements it reviewed were not accompanied by proper supporting documentation, various accounts were not reconciled and cash donations were not properly or correctly made. systematically addressed, among other issues.
Some of the issues identified by the audit are similar to flaws found in the ministry’s auditor’s 2015 audit.
The State Public Employees Safety and Health Bureau’s safety audit cited the department for insufficient training and because two firefighters failed to wear their bunker gear while “performing the interior structural firefighting” during a July 30 fire.
In the Department of PESH’s 2018 safety audit, an outside firefighter was also cited for not wearing turnout gear during a fire.
The personnel issue discussed at the executive session concerned security breaches, but Ms Vogt said only that “steps would be taken for corrective action”.
“We are moving forward with the department to make sure it is up and running, to correct these issues and to strengthen our relationship between the village and the fire department to ensure ratepayers get everything they need with the money they invested in it,” Souva said after the meeting.
Part of the remedy for the accounting issues raised by the audit – including the mixing of funds raised specifically for the drill team versus taxpayer money contributed by the village and fire districts – is to s to ensure that these funds are no longer mixed and “to correct their (firefighters’) finances so that they can track them better,” Souva said.
“And we’ll make sure they’re set up correctly to do that,” he said.
The fire department also followed recommendations from the comptroller’s office and is working with a consultant to create better policies and procedures, according to the mayor.
For the village leaders, an important point was clarified during the meeting which they believe will make the corrective process more productive.
“The biggest understanding that comes out of this is that this (village) council is responsible for the fire service,” Ms Vogt said. “They are a village department no different from the DPW (Department of Public Works).”
“That’s the big deal, (Ms Randall) confirmed that with the fire department, yes we (the village) are responsible and we have to play a big part in maintaining and taking care of things” , added Mr. Souva.
“I think it was something that was important for firefighters to understand and for us to understand,” administrator Shareef Stokely said.
Two other village administrators, Gerald Snyder and Benjamin Shambo left immediately after the meeting ended.
“At some point the village council decided to start handing the money over to them (the firefighters) but really didn’t want anything to do with them. That’s my understanding,” Mr. Souva. “So they felt like they were alone, which they never were.”
Since the village council voted to end the drill team’s active participation in firematics competitions in 2019 because accidents related to the dangerous sport had driven up the cost of workers’ compensation for taxpayers of the village, the rift between the village and the firefighters became polarized. throughout the village.
“You see some of the comments on Facebook, they think we’re after the firefighters, but that’s not what we’re doing,” Mr Stokely said.
The Village Council will meet with Ms. Randall to develop new by-laws and guidelines to govern the fire service. Drafts are expected to be presented at the February board meeting.
The special meeting was convened this weekend by Mr Souva – who attended via Zoom remotely due to testing positive for COVID-19 on Tuesday morning. While a number of representatives from the Copenhagen Fire Department and other county fire departments, as well as some residents attended the opening of the meeting, the fire department audits did not discussed only in executive session.