Listen to the complete audio of the meeting here
GRATIS TOWNSHIP — Twenty-three of 26 West Elkton firefighters resigned during a West Elkton-Gratis Township Fire Department Board meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 25. Those who resigned included Chief Johnny Cassidy and Assistant Chief Clyde Dishman.
Currently, Gratis Township is covered by two departments. West Elkton Fire Department is in charge of all calls outside of the Village of Gratis limits; Gratis Fire is in charge of all calls within the village limits.
The meeting lasted nearly three hours while many from the department spoke and several residents voiced concerns.
The resignations come after Gratis Township trustees passed an amendment to the fire and rescue contracts with both West Elkton and Gratis Fire Departments stating, “Per recommendation of our solicitor and our sheriff, we will go back to dispatching both fire departments to every scene and no department will be placed on call until all parties are on scene and we are 100 percent positive the scene is in control, then parties that are not needed can be sent back to their station.”
Cassidy handed in his resignation about 30 minutes into the meeting. He noted: “Fire board members, I, John Cassidy, hereby resign my position as West Elkton-Gratis Township Fire Chief and I’m resigning as fire fighter from the West Elkton Fire Department. I give credit to the decisions by elected officials making it difficult to perform my duties as fire chief. I will not sit back and wait for someone to be severely hurt or even killed because elected officials are attempting to tie my hands in making safe and (inaudible) decisions that I’m covered and given authority to do so by the Ohio revised code and Ohio Administrative Code.”
He left the meeting after reading his resignation letter.
Cassidy and other members stated during the meeting they would stay with the department if the amendment was reworded to allow them to cancel any responding units if they are determined to be unnecessary before they reach the scene, whether those units are from West Elkton or from Gratis.
During the meeting two township trustees, Jerry Thomas and Jeff Lynch (who is also on the West Elkton Fire Board) said the letter was poorly worded and could be reworded to allow units to be canceled when they are absolutely not needed.
Lynch said he wrote the letter and did so under the advisement of Prosecuting Attorney Martin Votel and Preble County Sheriff Mike Simpson. Lynch said he respected the years of experience the two have, and acted on the letter because of that experience.
After about two and half hours of discussion the board entered executive session to discuss Cassidy’s resignation.
Dishman, on behalf of the department, asked the board to reject Cassidy’s resignation with the understanding the letter would be reworded. Dishman also told the board if the resignation was accepted most members of the department would resign.
The board exited executive session and President Jay Long read the following statement:
“I think we need to keep in mind the good of the community. What we are here to do is provide a service to the community and not play the politics and hopefully it won’t come into play but I think we still have some issues with politics honestly. To leverage walking out when somebody resigns I think that is part politics. I respect you guys, I hope you guys stick around, it’s your choice. You guys have my respect as firefighters, you may not always agree with the decisions the board makes, but that is how the board functions as a governing body. We were formed to make these decisions. It’s our responsibility to serve the community and the taxpayers and do what is in the best interest of the community.”
A motion to accept the resignation was then approved unanimously by the board.
It was at this time other members of the department turned in their resignations.
After the meeting Lt. Lee Eller said the rejection of Cassidy’s resignation would have shown an act of good faith, if the board would have gone to trustees to change the wording of the letter.
“To me, just in my mind, that was proof to me that is this a chief they want to support? Or is this is just somebody they want to get rid of?” Eller said. “That was just how it felt to me. If he (Cassidy) would have came back and pulled that (his resignation) off the table that is kind of like saying I change my mind, I back up on everything I’ve said here. It just seemed like to me, it gave them an opportunity to show that they were willing to give and take and find a middle ground.”
Eller and Dishman said, in the past the board has told them they were going to work on issues presented to them only to come back to the next meeting not having done them.
It should also be noted despite the presence of trustees on the board and in the audience, the West Elkton Fire Board Association has no control of Gratis Township Trustees or the Gratis Fire Department or business conducted by them. They are only a governing body for the fire department of West Elkton.
During the meeting Cassidy, Dishman and other members of the department expressed concerns the letter was in violation of both the Ohio Revised Code and the current contract between the department and the Gratis Township Trustees.
They also felt the letter prevented them from being able to safely do their jobs and violated terms of the contract with Gratis Township.
“They modified the contract stating I can no longer do my duty as a fire chief and cancel units I do not need responding to the scene,” said Cassidy, who expressed concerns that if a unit was in an accident on the way to scene it was not needed at, then Cassidy would be responsible in court when asked why he didn’t cancel the unit.
Votel said during the meeting that in his judgment, the letter “did not change the terms of contract.” In regard to the Ohio Revised Code, Votel noted, “It’s my interpretation of that code that ‘scene’ means exactly what it says, once you’re at the scene the fire chief has the authority to regulate that scene in every respect. It doesn’t mean the fire chief has the authority to determine who is there in the first instance or not. (Or who is dispatched.)”
Cassidy and other members of the department said the concerns of training go beyond working side by side, but reach into the issues of liability. Members felt they were risking their families’ well-being after a lawsuit if someone were to file lawsuit against a member of the department in the case of an accident on scene or on the way to a scene.
Members said they felt Cassidy and the department would be held responsible if anything happened on a scene which led to a lawsuit.
However, Votel said during the meeting, the liability starts and stops with the Gratis Township Trustees.
Votel continued by explaining why he felt the letter was a necessary course of action.
“It was clear listening to Mr. Cassidy’s comments tonight that he is none too happy with the people in Gratis, people are getting in fistfights, people are making false allegations etc. etc. How then can Mr. Cassidy or the West Elkton Fire Department expect the public to sit back and trust that these judgments to call off Gratis Fire Department are made in good faith pursuant to his training and best experience? And there was a long pattern of ‘nope, Gratis shouldn’t come, nope Gratis shouldn’t come’ — I don’t care if the wreck is one mile outside of Gratis, calling Gratis to stand down — stand down to the point where the Gratis Township Trustees, the ultimate body responsible for these decisions, were concerned that politics were being played with people’s lives.”
Simpson, along with Votel, was called upon several times to provide answers and opinions on the issues discussed during the meeting.
During the meeting Simpson said he called for a private meeting with Cassidy, Gratis Mayor David Johnston, township representatives and chiefs from Gratis Fire and EMS about a month prior and said, “Guys this is crazy, there is no reason why you can’t work together; you may not like each other, but we need to be professional and work together.”
Simpson continued by noting: “There are fire agencies all over the county who do this — Eldorado, West Manchester, Gasper and Camden; it’s worked down here for years. This needs to be worked out. We thought we were going to have a meeting to get these issues worked out, sit down at the table, work it out, and protect the taxpayers. That’s the people you should be worried about not this stuff.”
During the meeting West Elkton members cited several incidents in which they believed the Gratis Fire Department used wrong equipment or acted in wrongful manners while on a fire scene that risked the safety of West Elkton members and their equipment.
Throughout the meeting members of West Elkton’s department stated they believe Gratis was not properly trained and their vehicles and equipment did not pass proper safety inspections.
Dishman said afterward, the department had been asking for training records of the Gratis Fire Department to prove they are going through proper training and proper equipment and vehicle safety inspections, but those records were never given to the West Elkton department.
Gratis Mayor David Johnston said in an interview after the meeting, the concerns of safety and training were not valid, as Gratis currently has 18 members on the department who have completed all training required. Johnston continued by saying the department completes all safety tests for vehicles and equipment on a yearly basis.
“We have two engines, plus a tanker and a gas truck and all of them get regularly schedule maintenance. We have our ladders tested every year, our bottles, all the equipment and care packs we keep up on all that,” said Johnston, who also said the department currently has 18 certified members with two more going to school.
Calls made to township trustee Jeff Lynch were not returned. Township trustee Jerry Thomas did return calls but said he had no comment as he resigned his position as a trustee on the morning of Monday, Aug. 31. Thomas did not give a reason for his resignation.
Chief Johnny Cassidy did not give comments after the meeting, citing a conflict of interest with his job with Gratis Township.
West Elkton Fire Board President Jay Long also did not return calls for comment.
Simpson and Johnston said the Gratis Fire and EMS will take control of all calls in Gratis Township until the West Elkton department can be reestablished. Johnston said the department has already been in contact with surrounding departments expressing a need for mutual aid while the West Elkton department recovers from the resignations.
“It’s going to put stress on the surrounding fire agencies to provide mutual aid to the township. Hopefully they find some volunteers who serve the communities and protect the taxpayers regardless of politics,” Simpson said.
One solution proposed by both Lynch and Dishman during the meeting was the two departments becoming one department with a Gratis Township North (current Gratis station) and South (current West Elkton.) This is also supported by Johnston.
Dishman, Eller, and Lt. Chuck Crowley in a later interview said they believe most members of West Elkton’s department would return if the two departments would join under one department with one group of leadership and training standards — if their return was permitted by the trustees and fire board.
Dishman said people should know how hard this decision was for the members of the department.
“This is killing us, it kills me to do this… I devoted most of my life to this department, I was part of the first cadet program here when I was 12 and I’ve been a member ever since. So we didn’t make this decision lightly,” he said.