By Jacob Mahaffey
Years of turmoil between the Prairie Township Trustees and the Prairie Township Fire Department (Holmesville) came to an impasse last week. This resulted in the resignations of both Chief Reuben Miller and Assistant Chief Brian Rafferty.
At the center of this current controversy is miscommunication. “The miscommunication was the definition of daily operations,” Township Trustee, Paul Troyer explained. “I was interested in utilizing some of our community members that have been previously trained and have up-to-date criteria that they need to fight fire and run EMS.”
Troyer felt that hiring does not fall under daily operations and therefore, does not fall into the job description of the Fire Chief. “I looked at that as being outside of the daily operations,” Troyer added.
However, Chief Miller and Assistant Chief Rafferty both feel that hiring personnel falls into what they do on a daily basis. The tribulation between the two groups is not anything new. “It’s been 10 years since I got on the fire department,” Chief Miller explained. “It’s been going well for two and a half years, running smoothly. You always get your ups and downs, but we were headed in the right direction.”
The turning point for the department was a document that was written about 2.5 years ago known as The Prairie Township Memorandum of Understanding. All members were encouraged to sign the document stating that they realized they were working for the fire department and not for the fire association. All but nine members signed the document.
Those who didn’t, left the department. Things were going well, until about six months ago.
This current impasse began on August 16 at the regular meeting of the Prairie Township Trustees when Trustee Dale Wolboldt made a motion that all persons who left the department two years ago be hired back, going through him and not through the chief.
At that time, both Chief Miller and Assistant Chief Rafferty tendered their resignations. The actions were not because they didn’t want that group back on the department, rather it was because of the way they were brought back onboard, bypassing the chief.
“Chief Miller then spoke to me about it, as I was the Assistant Fire Chief,” Rafferty stated. “Since we had heard before the election and after that Dale Wolboldt and Paul Troyer wanted us out as Chiefs and wanted to run the Department, we decided we could not continue to serve as Chiefs if they were going to allow people to bypass the chain of command.”
When both men announced their resignations, trustees refused to accept them. Instead, they opted to hold another meeting to discuss the resignations. On September 4, a meeting was held to discuss the future of Miller and Rafferty. After going into executive session, it was decided that Miller would be placed on six months of probation and maintain his Chief’s position while Rafferty would be demoted from his position.
After this announcement, both men refused to accept the consequences and continued with their resignation. Not long after, an outcry from the public became intense, including a petition on change.org. To address the residents of the community, the Trustees called for a special meeting on Saturday, September 9.
The meeting was held in the fire station. In the crowd were residents, current and former firefighters, and firefighters from neighboring departments. Seated before this crowd were Stacey Shaw, Trustee Chairperson, Trustees Dale Wolboldt and Paul Troyer, and Fiscal Officer Carol Snyder.
Right from the beginning of the meeting, the landscape was tumultuous. “I apologize to you greatly for the situation we are in,” Shaw started. “I should have taken control, but I didn’t.”
Most of the meeting was spent answering questions about what exactly happened. “There is a communication problem in our department and on our board as well,” Shaw explained.
While most of the meeting was about clarification, there were some concerns. Many of which focused on Wolboldt and Troyer, who are both past members of the fire department, that were recently elected as trustees. “Everyone knew when the election results came in that we would be in this bay,” exclaimed Josh Summers, a member of the department since 2014.
Wolboldt, who declined to comment on the record, did provide a copy of his candidate questionnaire that he filled out for The Daily Record. In it, he stated, “The most pressing problem in our township is the safety of our residents be it through emergency services or road maintenance. Slow response times from limited EMTs, paramedics, and firemen is a concern. We have lost many years of experience with the recent realignment of the fire department. We need to work and talk with former members as communication is the key to keeping current and reestablishing former fire department members.”
Trustees were asked if they attend the monthly firefighter meetings. None have done so. “Who is the liaison then?” one resident shouted. “Whoever Reuben is comfortable in making a call to is the liaison,” Shaw answered.
“This is about safety, bottom-line. If my house catches on fire I want them there,” added Sid Hackaday, a resident of the township for 65 years. “I have never been scared. I’ve lived in this township for a long time. Right now, I’m scared.”
At one point, there was a call for the resignations of Wolboldt and Troyer.
Everyone in attendance was in agreement on one thing – this is not good for the community. “I have taken personal time from work. I visited several townships and spoke with their chiefs. I want to get through this. It’s not good for our community,” Shaw stated to unanimous applause.
The meeting which lasted a little over an hour ended with the passage of two motions. The first motion was that Miller and Rafferty be reinstated to full duties, no probation or disciplinary action.
The motion passed unanimously.
Both Miller and Rafferty accepted the reinstatement.
The second motion was that trustees would govern the department but let Chief Miller run the operations. This, too, passed with all three votes needed.
After the meeting, both sides of the debate were impressed with the community turnout. “It’s a community entity, tax dollars run this,” Troyer said. “We need the community. We need the firefighters. We need everybody to run this.”
Miller was also taken aback by the support. “When I walked in this morning I was like ‘wow,’” he shared. “It was unbelievable to know and see the community support that we have. I believe it was good that the community was here. We got to talk to them and know how they support us.”
Though there are still many issues that need to be tackled and more issues that need to be ironed out, Chief Miller is hopeful about the future of the Prairie Township Fire Department. “We’re going to move on,” he said. “It’s going to keep going the right way. Sometimes you have to go downhill, start from the bottom and go back up. I do believe we can make something good of this.”
This story originally appeared in the September 12, 2018 edition of The Budget. For more news, pick up a copy of this week’s edition available Wednesdays at area retailers. Better yet, subscribe and the news will be delivered to you each week. For more information, call us at 330-852-4634.