If the earlier meeting is fruitful, a revised ordinance would be brought up for a vote at a Tuesday, March 28 Town Council meeting instead.
The original changes were introduced at a Town Council meeting on Jan. 24. They attempted to loosen the department's residency requirement, prevent firefighters from using their position to gain political office, and require more physical testing for those hired. But the changes were controversial on a number of levels.
Sources said that the Fire Department sent out a letter to residents in the middle of last week protesting the ordinance.
Among other issues, the ordinance says that firefighters can't "utilizes the name of the Fire Company or Department in any advertisement, endorsement, or campaign activity with regard to any election for political office."
Some have asked whether that means a candidate can't even tout his experience as a firefighter if he runs for office.
Additionally, the residency requirement for applicants was entirely eliminated according to the language of the ordinance, rather than just broadened. That is something that is likely to be changed again before it is finalized. Also, firefighters are presently required to get cardiovascular examinations every two years starting from the age of 50, rather than 60. Town officials said last week that some firefighters did not like that change.
Meeting with firefighters
Mayor Dennis Elwell said last week that after the ordinance was introduced, representatives from the department's five fire companies submitted suggestions for changing the ordinance.
Elwell said that there will be a meeting between his administration and the Secaucus Fire Department Mutual Association on Tuesday before the council meeting.
"They asked us to clarify [the residency issue] and make adjustments," Elwell said. "We're going to have a caucus with them."
The proposed ordinance eliminates the requirement for volunteer firefighters to live in town. When asked about this last month, town officials said that the purpose of this is to allow volunteers who live out of town but work in town to also apply. However, the language of the proposed ordinance eliminates residency all together. It merely asks that volunteers "be a citizen of the United States."
Secaucus Town Administrator Anthony Iacono said Tuesday that the ordinance will probably be changed again to reflect that all applicants must live in Secaucus, but those presently in the department who have moved out of town may stay. He said that there are approximately nine firefighters out of 86 in the department who have moved out of town.
Can you at least mention it?
Also in the ordinance, firefighters cannot engage in political activity while on duty or use their names in relation to the department in any campaign activities.
When asked last week if that stops a firefighter from using his experience as an enhancement to run for office, Elwell said, "You could say you're a member of the Fire Department. I mean, how could we prevent that?" However, the ordinance does say that a firefighter can't use his name in the ordinance.
Elwell said that is a matter to be clarified with the town attorney.
As it stands right now, the ordinance says a member can't "... utilize the name of the fire company or department in any advertisement, endorsement, or campaign activity with regard to any election."
Firefighters typically get donations to use for social activities and for charity fundraisers. The donations are not spent on equipment. The actual funding of the department's equipment and operations comes from the town budget.
Since the department is all-volunteer, the social activities allow firefighters to attend and spend time with their families.
The new ordinance states that any firefighter or firehouse cannot accept any donation from an individual or business for over $250. If the donation is for over that amount, it must be reported to the Town Council for approval.
This change is controversial for a few reasons. It could lessen the socializing of the department, seen by some as one of the benefits of joining the all-volunteer organization. It also comes after other attempts to curtail department fundraising as part of the political battle between the administration of Mayor Dennis Elwell and Fire Battalion Chief and Department of Public Works Supervisor Michael Gonnelli.
Elwell said last month that the amendments would prevent Gonnelli, who is also an unpaid commissioner for the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission, from having to recuse himself from voting on ordinances at the NJMC because a business or person had donated to the Fire Department. Last year there was a controversy around an ordinance concerning Wal-Mart, which had made donations to the Secaucus Fire Department budget.
"A $250 donation does not have to be recorded in our accounts, so it would not present a problem," said Elwell. "If a corporation, say like Hartz Mountain, who has donated in the past, wants to give a larger amount, we could alert the NJMC about the situation in advance."
There had been a fundraising ban on the Fire Department set by the Town Council a few months last year, during the Wal-Mart controversy. The ban provoked much anger among the firefighters and was seen as a way to try to get Gonnelli to relinquish one of his positions.
The town eventually relented and let the department accept $250 donations. The addition to the code will formalize the guideline.
As it exists right now, the ordinance also states that volunteer firefighters must:
Be U.S. citizens.
Be 18 years of age or over.
Be of "sound mind."
Meet certain requirements for physical health.
Have a valid New Jersey driver's license.
Have completed the firefighter 1 course at an approved firefighter academy, or have served in another fire department.
Have no facial hair that prevents effective use of Scot-pack type breathing equipment.
Be of "good moral character, and not act or have acted in any way to reflect unfavorably upon the Secaucus Volunteer Fire Department."