Council Revises Charter; Fire Wardens to Report to City Manager

It’s not every day that the City Council amends its Charter, but they did just that at their last meeting.  

Published March 8, 2012 3:51 PM
3 min read


It’s not every day that the City Council amends its Charter, but they did just that at their last meeting.


By Robin Jovanovich


It’s not every day that the City Council amends its Charter, but they did just that at their last meeting.


One of the oddities of The Rye City Charter had been that the Board of Fire Wardens, who supervised the volunteer firemen, reported to the City Council, not the City Manager. They were the only department not to report to the City Manager.


At their February 29 meeting, the Council, by a vote of 5-2, amended the Rye City Charter, Article 13 (Fire Department). The new language reads in part: “The Board of Fire Wardens, in con- junction with the City Manager, shall have control and supervision of The Fire Department.”


Said Mayor Doug French, “When I met with Frank Culross [then City Manager] in January 2010, he said to me: ‘The Fire Department is not aligned for the long term with the paid firemen reporting to the City Manager and Board of Wardens reporting to the Council.’ Mayor French noted further that a study in 2004 recommended consolidating reporting lines, that the changes had been fully discussed in a public workshop, and that the Board of Wardens were in complete agreement with this amendment to the charter.


During the public hearing last month, former Councilmember Andy Ball urged the Council to “think long and hard about the effect of the change on the morale of the volunteers.” He expressed concern that reporting to the City Manager might make the Board of Wardens feel disengaged because their job had been in some way diminished. “There may be the unintended consequences of morale damage.”


Councilmembers Catherine Parker and Joe Sack urged delaying a decision on the amendment. Ms. Parker said that she and Mr. Sack were conducting their own study of the Fire Department, and “that the Council shouldn’t make changes piecemeal.” Mr. Sack said, “I would be more comfortable vetting this now, even if we go forward with it eventually. Before I take another baby step, I don’t know what we are walking towards.” The Councilman acknowledged that the Board of Wardens had voted to approve the change and “that carries a lot of weight with me, but I don’t know if there is any urgency now.”


Councilman Peter Jovanovich said, “We have an enormous reform agenda before us, in the Council, we can’t miss any opportunity to take a baby step. This is an opportunity tonight to act.”


Councilwoman Laura Brett added, “There’s nothing more important than the morale of the volunteer firemen, but I sat through a workshop and I didn’t hear any objection to this as far as the Board of Wardens. Tonight, I haven’t heard any firefighters come forward and tell us that there’s a problem with this. I don’t hear any reason not to vote on this tonight.”


Councilmembers Suzanna Keith and Rich Filippi were gladdened that this amendment was “brought forward by the Board of the Wardens.”


In an email exchange with Councilman Sack after the meeting, we asked why he [and Councilwoman Parker] felt compelled to investigate the matter independently. They both voted against the amendment.


Councilman Sack’s response was: “Having taken the time to meet with many stakeholders, a process that we are continuing with, Catherine and I have come to realize that there many points of view and subtleties that should be synthesized, especially in a department that relies so heavily on volunteers. In this respect, and with its unique history, the Fire Department is different from any other operating City department.”


After the meeting, Mayor French said the Council had done their due diligence. “Scott Pickup and I met with the Fire Department for over a year. They helped drive the process, are glad we made the change, and look for- ward to working with the City Manager.”

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