West Hurley Fire Commissioners wrestle with restless crowd

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

Nothing went over easy at the West Hurley Fire District’s Board of Commissioners’ meeting Monday, March 11. New policies and procedures set to be put into place after the hiring of a new Syracuse-based legal firm specializing in fire companies and emergency services were questioned; “Are they necessary. What if we don’t sign,” asked fire department members. Why is there a distinction between the commissioner-run district and members-run department? How come members get to turn down applications from people they don’t know without any due process? 

The battles descended into discussion over new contracts for mowing firehouse lawns, as well as where and when to hold the West Hurley firemen’s annual dinner. Why not use the spacious firehouse everyone was meeting in off of Wall Street, built with a large kitchen to accommodate such functions?

Will Mike “Bucky” Van Valkenburgh, one of the commissioners absent for the meeting (along with Dave Blatter, who goes to Florida each winter) start attending meetings again? Why hasn’t he resigned since being arrested on charges from the state comptrollers’ office and Ulster County District Attorney of Corrupting the Government and Official Misconduct, alongside former West Hurley Fire Department chief Dave Gutierrez? 

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As with all fire commissioner meetings for the past year, ever since former board chair Van Valkenburgh tried pushing through the sale of several department fire vehicles and purchase of used replacements, the large crowd in attendance was rankled, and loud about it.

The only news that seemed to get accepted without outcry came when commissioner Frank Faluotico Jr. noted that the district’s computers had recently been returned by the county sheriff’s office.

Things played out testily from the start as correspondence was read, minutes approved, and discussion of new memberships begun. People in the audience, many of them fire department members or their family, asked why no applications had been handed over to the commissioners for their final okay yet. 

Current board of commissioners chairman Justus Rice said there were applicants at the department level that hadn’t been voted on yet. Current department chief Frank Fauble explained how applications go to a fire department committee for vetting, then get voted on by the department’s current members by secret ballot, then finally sent on to the commissioners for a final okay. 

“It’s the same as the gun club,” one fireman chimed in as others decried the differences between a private club and a public institution and others asked for clarification. What was the difference between the West Hurley Fire District and West Hurley Fire Department?

Faluotico explained that its commissioners oversaw the finances and policies for the district, and were elected by residents of the areas served. The department handled operations, with officers elected by membership.

Who gets denied, and how are such decisions explained to those denied? Is there an appeals process for those not granted membership? Without such things, Faluotico said, you’d end up with “the same old politics of the fire house.”

Chief Fauble responded by noting that those denied membership could reapply in six months. He noted that the closed ballots meant, “no more show of hands on who gets in, no more bullying.”

A woman rose and defended the fire department. “Why would we vote someone in we don’t know,” she asked. 

Several others asked why the commissioners didn’t vet members. Or commented about how those wishing to volunteer shouldn’t be pushed away. 

One woman grew agitated, talking about the closed nature of the fire department. 

We asked who was on the seven-person membership committee and Fauble said he wouldn’t share such information. 

Policies, budgets

Faluotico suggested that the board of commissioners and fire department officers all meet with the district’s attorney, Dave Galloway of Pinsky Law Group in Syracuse. Rice said it would be a good idea if everyone heard the same legal opinions rather than have one or two people interpret them for others. 

Discussion again centered on the differences between district and department. Why did firemen have to sign on to a book of new policies and procedures when the fire department could set its own operations? What happened to those days when you’d simply get a manual and then get sent out to fight fires? 

Those days are gone said Rice. Firemen could set their own procedures but they had to fit the district’s policies. Both were being rewritten by Galloway, who spoke recently with Woodstock Times regarding fire districts, fire departments and fire policies, which fall under the oversight jurisdictions of various municipal and state jurisdictions. 

Budget discussions opened with talk of the annual dinner, which last year ran $5900 for about 125 firefighters and their guests. The idea of purchasing a sound system with microphones and the ability to record meetings was discussed. Fauble brought up some equipment upgrades that were needed and a treasurer’s report was requested, which revealed that over $15,000 of the district’s $20,000 allotment for such things for 2019 had already been spent. The chief’s voice rose; new fire commissioner Cheri Scully told him his anger and loudness were “getting old.”

“We have a budget, Frank,” she said repeatedly.

It was decided that the three commissioners would meet with Fauble in executive session to discuss personnel matters, including return of equipment by Van Valkenburgh and Gutierrez. Faluotico suggested they open bids for a building cleaner and lawn caretaker, as well. Someone noted that bids are usually opened in public so Faluotico said they’d do so immediately.

Only one bid came in for the cleaning…from the treasurer’s husband. Did he know shoveling snow was part of the job? The man was called and said he knew. Three bids came in for the lawn work, one much lower than the others. Faluotico said he wanted to know why and when a call was made to the man and an answering machine picked up, he asked that a decision be postponed. But what about the lawns, asked Rice. Since the treasurer’s husband had the contract at present, he’d just be doing it until a new bid — possibly his — was accepted.

No comment on arrests

As for those arrests and whether any investigations into the West Hurley Fire District and Fire Department might be continuing…NYS Comptroller’s Office Press Secretary Kate Gurnett answered that her office was continuing to work with the Ulster County D.A., while the D.A.’s office did not return requests for comment by press time.

Hurley supervisor John Perry said separate from this past week’s fire commissioner meeting that there’s nothing the town could do with what’s been happening.

In the meantime, he’s set an upcoming town meeting for the West Hurley Fire House for Tuesday, March 19. In addition to fire company matters, he’s expecting to hear more about a long-stagnant proposal from Brooklyn developers to turn the old West Hurley School into high end apartments.

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