OpEd: Dialog Discussing Recent Editorial in Groton Herald with Selectman Petropoulos
Editors Note: Two weeks ago we wrote an Editorial titled 'Clown-Car Politics', criticizing Selectman Jack Petropoulos for accusing Town Manager Mark Haddad of endangering the public safety by restricting overtime hours for the Fire Department. We recently sat down with Selectman Petropoulos to review our claim that his actions were 'reckless and irresponsible.'
Groton Herald: You claim restricting overtime hours for the Fire Department 'endangered the public safety'. Could you give us just one convincing example of when and how, as you say, the public safety was endangered?
Selectman Petropoulos: There are many. For instance on12/19 a call for a medical emergency which should have been responded to in well under 9 minutes went unanswered by Groton EMS (due to short staffing) and required mutual aid from a private ambulance with a final response time of 18 minutes. This was at least a 9 minute delay.
It is true that many calls are not time sensitive; but there are an estimated 12 'time critical' calls a year. It is a matter of chance that this call was a delay rather than a tragedy.
Groton Herald: You just gave one example. How many clear examples were there during the two-month period you looked at that you truly consider 'endangered the public safety'?
Selectman Petropoulos: I don't have the numbers for the two month period. It is a very complex process to take apart the call logs and to accurately tease out the instances where short staffing resulted in a delay.
I worked with the Chief to see if we could find any indication that calls were delayed. The first 4 instances that we found were in a 7 day period between 12/19/2013 and 12/26/13. I do not know if they are representative as they were selected randomly. I do know that short staffing was spread throughout the 2 month period.
Groton Herald: In the editorial, we said that you 'inserted yourself in a labor dispute between the Firefighters Union and the Town Manager.' Do you think this is true?
Selectman Petropoulos: I inserted myself into a public safety issue. A year ago, prior to the firefighters forming their union, I would have done the same thing and there would have been no union allegation.
If my actions affected a union dispute, so be it. To have failed to take this action because there was potentially some benefit to a union, or any third party, would have been truly irresponsible.
Groton Herald: Can you understand how others could interpret your approach as taking the side of a Union in this dispute?
Selectman Petropoulos: Any complex issue assessed with limited access to information is easy to interpret from a variety of perspectives. Absent the kind of details and facts that we are discussing today, a case can easily be made that I am acting as a union sympathizer.
I think that the Union issue is a red herring, distracting from the central issue of public safety.
Groton Herald: Does your action undermine the Town Manager's authority when negotiating with other town Unions?
Selectman Petropoulos: Outcomes that rely on authority rather than reason are rarely productive. In this case both the authority to make the cuts and the reasoning for making them, was countered by the BoS in its instruction to the Town Manager to return staffing to the level specified by the Chief, to manage staffing levels in the best interest of public safety, and not to adjust staffing levels again without first discussing with the BOS.
It is important to note that I did not create this situation. If there is an impact on the Town Manager's authority to negotiate with other town Unions, I think that it was the result of the actions that he took, rather than my efforts to reverse them.
Groton Herald: Do you think it is fair that Call firefighters are restricted from serving as substitutes for Union Firefighters when Union Firefighters are on vacation? Would you support a change in the Union contract?
Selectman Petropoulos: Call firefighters are not restricted from serving as substitutes for Full Time (Union) firefighters. Full Time firefighters are given right of first refusal. This practice was in place prior to the creation of the union last year, and is common in combination (Full Time and Call) departments around the Country. (Ironically, had the order to refuse overtime to Full Time personnel not been given, protocol would have allowed the vacancies to be filled by Call firefighters at a reduced rate.)
The practice, like any other, has pluses and minuses, and it, like any practice, should be a part of ongoing negotiation. I would be supportive of a change if, on balance, the outcome is positive.
Groton Herald: In hindsight, Do you think you could have brought the accusation of 'endangering the public safety' in a less provocative way?
Selectman Petropoulos: The provocative nature of this situation was created long before I became aware of it. It rests in the timing and the consequence of the cuts, and the fact that they were made without notice to the BOS or the public. Unwinding these in an environment governed by Open Meeting law was inevitably going to be controversial.
As soon as the magnitude of the public safety risk became clear to me I asked for an emergency meeting of the BOS. That request was made by email late on Thursday 1/9/14 and followed with a phone call early on the 10th. An emergency meeting, though open to the public, would likely have garnered far less attention than a regularly scheduled meeting. I was not looking for a show.
My request was not granted and the issue was scheduled by the Vice Chair of the BOS for discussion at the regularly scheduled meeting on the evening of 1/13/14. I believe I laid out a factual case while assuring that the magnitude of the risk was properly understood. The fact that it became charged was likely inevitable.
Groton Herald: Do you think we should adopt a full time firefighting force in order to better protect the public safety?
Selectman Petropoulos: Not at this point. Public safety is not an absolute goal. We cannot put a fire station on every corner and a police officer in every home. We balance cost and benefit. Our current Combination model and staffing structure is the balance that Town Meeting has approved. It covers 70% of the calls with 5 full time personnel.
We cannot afford a full time firefighter / EMS force, nor would we gain incremental benefit proportional to the cost. Our Call firefighters and EMS staff do an amazing job of providing protection for the 66% of the day when Full Time staff are not on duty. I believe that our current model is a great combination for our town in our circumstances.
We may well need to go to a more full time model in the future if we are unable to continue to recruit and retain Call firefighter and EMS resources. We just had our largest recruitment class ever so for the near term at least, we can count on our Combination model and the men and women that staff it to give us great protection at a cost we are willing to bear.
Groton Herald: Do you think we should increase the percentage of the town budget spend on 'Protection of Persons and Property' [Police and Fire Departments] ?
Selectman Petropoulos: I don't think of our investment in terms of percentage of town budget. I think of it in terms of cost and benefit. Understanding emergency call volume and resource availability provides the metrics necessary to tell us where to invest our first dollar, how to invest subsequent dollars and where to draw the line.
In my opinion we have drawn that line at the right place with our firefighting EMS budget. I am less familiar with our Police staffing and so I cannot express an informed opinion. It is the job of the Fire and Police Chiefs to alert the Board when, in their professional opinion, their budgets are not providing adequate public safety. Anyone who has watched the budget creation process will understand the challenge that they endure in order to justify increases.
Groton Herald: Do you consider the Groton Herald Editorial unfair?
Selectman Petropoulos: I think that it would have been better to have spoken before you wrote your piece. It is not easy to take a stand, and that task is made harder by criticism such as that levied in your Editorial. For better or for worse, this is what I signed up for when I ran for Selectman, but I would ask you to think about how words affect the decision of others to volunteer for public office, or to take a position that they know will be controversial.
That said, I appreciate the opportunity to have this discussion. It is to your credit that we can have this dialogue and I think your readers are well served by your willingness to do so. Had I not brought this issue forward, and if someone was ultimately injured by these cuts, I can only imagine the editorial that you would have written, and how you would have rightly used the words "reckless and irresponsible".