NEWS HEADLINES

Firestorm over Rhome VFD service fizzles out

By Brandon Evans | Published Saturday, February 15, 2014

After months of wrangling, Rhome City Council rejected an ordinance tied to dual service on the council and fire department.

Council members decided to take no action Thursday night on a proposed ordinance that would have limited the number and voting power of volunteer firefighters who also serve on council.

The proposed ordinance would allow no more than two members of the Rhome Volunteer Fire Department to serve on council and/or as mayor. They would also have to recuse themselves from voting on items related to the fire department.

The proposed ordinance had been discussed at length in council meetings for months, and it was a topic at a council workshop held last month.

But at this week’s regular meeting council member Louis Godfrey gave a compelling argument against the measure. He said imposing such a limit could breech the voting rights of elected officials and the people who elected them into office.

“I think we need to be careful about what we are doing here,” Godfrey said. “We could get into legal trouble. We have council members talking about what other council members can or can’t vote on.

“Should we take away the right of people to vote who have been elected by people to vote for them on these issues?” he asked. “Everyone should have a right to vote on these issues. Why should you take that away?”

He added that preventing votes for anything related to fire department would basically prevent certain council members from taking any action on the budget since it includes funding for the volunteer fire department.”

“I have an issue with the voting,” added Mayor Chris Moore who also serves as assistant fire chief. “Council members were elected to vote on this stuff. It’s doesn’t benefit me or the department or anybody else, but equipment for the fire department does benefit the entire city by improving our ability to protect citizens and their property.”

City attorney Walt Leonard said it’s common to see volunteer fire departments also serve on the local council.

“You’ll see a lot of small towns where multiple members of the city council also serve on the VFD,” Leonard said.

David Wilson, former mayor and council member and former longtime member of the fire department said “it’s a bad deal.”

“I don’t like the situation down at the fire department right now by any means, but I don’t like hamstringing the council like this either,” he added.

“It’s unfortunate this has come up at all,” said council member Michelle Pittman. “I feel like you’re picking on one person, me.”

Pittman serves on the Rhome Volunteer Fire Department.

“Everyone is really tired of this,” she said. “This is tearing the town apart. … This has never been an issue before. What has changed? What has happened?”

“No one is against the fire department,” said council member Jo Ann Wilson, who has supported the ordinance. “We just want accountability to the taxpayer on where the money is going and how it’s spent.”

“Nobody on the fire department has access to any money,” Pittman said.

Current city law prevents only the fire chief from serving on the council or as mayor.

“What we have in place is fine,” Godfrey said. “I say we should forget this, and if there’s a problem in the future, we’ll address it.”

In the end, the rest of the council agreed and took no action on the proposed ordinance.

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