Balance or Bias?

Rollins’ route to Fire Commissioner draws mixed reviews

by Robert Lynch, July 21, 2023

At its next meeting, August ninth, the Enfield Town Board, the governing council on which this writer sits, will perform its last major act of oversight with the Enfield Volunteer Fire Company (EVFC).  And when it does, like in so many other instances from decades past, controversy will follow it all the way.

“The meeting has ended.” EVFC’s Ellen Woods (far right) exits after speaking against Barry Rollins’ selection as a Fire Commissioner. Questions continued.

With approval likely, the Town Board next month will confirm to its newly-authorized Board of Fire Commissioners the five people it tentatively tapped following a closed-door confab near the end of its mid-July meeting.  One of the five is Highway Superintendent Barry “Buddy” Rollins.  To many, he is the problem.  And there lies the controversy.

“He’s been against the Fire Department, and I have known the man,” Rollins’ former subordinate (and now his re-election challenger) Chris Willis complained during floor privileges minutes after the Town Board made its July choices public.  “And now you’re giving him the ability to choose and make decisions for the Fire Department?  That’s just so wrong.”

Wrong perhaps; but also legal.  A 1980 New York Attorney General’s Opinion gave the green light to highway superintendents pulling double-duty as fire commissioners.

“We’ve gotta’ have balance.  That’s the one thing that I realize,” Enfield Town Supervisor Stephanie Redmond replied to Willis, Redmond repeating a talking point she would employ several times during the July meeting’s closing minutes in defending the Town Board’s Commissioner choices.

“There’s no balance at all,” Willis rebutted.

“If we don’t have someone that shows that aspect of it—referring, presumably, to hard-nosed, fiscal skepticism—then everybody else….”  Redmond never got to complete her thought.

“Oh, it’s his Fire Department now,” Willis said of Rollins.  “You’re giving him charge of the Fire Department….”

“We’ve given him one person on a five person Board,” the Supervisor rebounded.

For Willis, and for those like him, one vote out of five on the new Enfield Fire District’s Board of Fire Commissioners is one vote too many.

“We cannot have everybody in there completely in the pocket of the Fire Company,” Supervisor Redmond stated during one telling exchange, countering Willis’ criticism of Rollins and stressing her desire for representational balance.

[EVFC membership records indicate, and the Company’s president confirms, that Chris Willis is not currently an EVFC member. A source reports that Willis applied. for membership subsequent to the meeting.]

“We have a lot of awesome candidates, and it was a very hard choice,” Redmond said moments earlier, just as she prepared to unveil the Town Board’s list of chosen nominees.   “We really tried to get some balance and you know, try to honor everybody who is both for and against this change by giving a lot of variety within the people we’ve picked.”

“We really tried to get some balance.” Supervisor Redmond, fielding questions; addressing concerns, after the Town Board’s Commissioner choice.

If you were to ask any of our Town Board’s five members, each would give a different reason behind the Board’s mid-June unanimous decision to abolish Enfield’s long-standing, Town Board-supervised “Fire Protection District” and replace it with a “Fire District,” a change under which public control of the fire service’s operational and budgeting decisions will shift from the Town Board to a Board of Fire Commissioners.  With that change, state law directs the Town Board to appoint the initial five Fire Commissioners.  The public will vote this December on whether to keep the people the Town appoints, or replace some or all of them.  The Fire District, itself, with appointed Commissioners, takes control August first.

Yet unless Rollins, after appointment, mends fences and changes minds, and also assuming that those in the Town Board’s visitors’ gallery represent the prevailing Fire Company sentiment, the Highway Superintendent could face an uphill battle retaining his Commissioner’s seat in the December Fire District election.  You see, based on behavior elsewhere, volunteer firefighters and EMS personnel comprise a Fire District election’s most likely voters.

“Bad move.  Bad move,” long time Fire Company President Dennis Hubbell said of Rollins’ tentative appointment.  “I think Buddy is a big conflict of interest, a huge conflict of interest.  I’m very disappointed with that one.”

But while the Fire Company’s business side may object to the Highway Superintendent’s appointment, Enfield Fire Chief Greg Stevenson has refused to join the chorus.  Stevenson did not attend the Town Board’s July 12th meeting, but he issued a written statement one day later:

“I’m pleased that the Town of Enfield has named the five initial fire district commissioners,” Stevenson stated the afternoon following the meeting.  “I look forward to working with them, as I have with the Town Board in the past, to assure that Enfield and it’s residents and visitors receive the best emergency fire and medical services possible,” the Chief continued.

The Town Board had as many as nine Fire Commissioner applicants to consider at its July meeting.  It could name only five.  According to Hubbell, only one of those appointed is a current EVFC member. 

Enfield firefighter and EMS responder, Robyn Wishna, among those tapped, would be joined by Superintendent Rollins and also by Geoffrey Hollister, a former Fire Commissioner in Richford and a past EVFC Board member; Jim Matthews, a 13-year firefighter and medic in Fairfax County, Virginia, and the current President of the Washington-based Rail Passengers Association; and Marcus Gingerich, a Rumsey Hill Road resident once-active in Enfield’s Black Oak Wind Farm debate.

Hubbell expressed concern that most of the tentatively-tapped Commissioners were unknown to him.  Hubbell said he knew Matthews, but claimed that Matthews’ interest in the EVFC never extended beyond his picking up an application.

What became evident as July’s meeting ended was that the persons some rank and file most wanted on the Board of Commissioners the Town Board had overlooked.   

Most prominently among the four passed over, EVFC Secretary, firefighter, EMS Director, and former Town Clerk Ellen Woods, made her concerns well known that night.  Others not chosen include former Fire Company President, Trustee, and 40-year member Roy Barriere, a former Town Supervisor; 61-year volunteer firefighter Larry Stilwell, and another former Supervisor and firefighter, Frank Podufalski, not presently a Fire Company member. 

Although Podufalski’s name was among those forwarded to the Town by the EVFC Board of Directors one day earlier (without explicit recommendation), Podufalski’s own application, if there was one, never reached Town Councilpersons before their meeting.

During the July session’s closing moments, Secretary Woods offered a nearly 250-word critique of Rollins’ selection.  She then walked out five minutes before the Town Board adjourned.

“I’m very disappointed in someone who has the privilege of being handsomely paid for their service to the Town, and who gets to pay every single person who works for them for every single minute of their time, was put on the Fire Commission,” Woods began her statement.  “Superintendent Rollins has made public statements, openly hostile toward the Fire Company,” Woods maintained, contending that EVFC volunteers must answer most of the calls about fallen trees, while Rollins’ Highway Department staff stand available, yet unused, even during working hours and are better-trained at chain saw work.

“We serve the Town for free.  His people serve the Town for pay,” Woods concluded.  “And he has been very, very hostile to the Fire Company recently.  So I’m very disappointed that he was put on this Commission, and I’m going to be open about that.”

On social media, Woods denied she’d walked out of the meeting “in anger,” prior to adjournment, as this writer had earlier implied. “I simply left because the meeting was over,” Woods posted on Facebook.

Public criticism of the Rollins appointment consumed only seven minutes of the Town Board’s two-and-a-half-hour meeting.  But much was packed into those final moments.  And the public discontent affirmed that any attempt by Town Board members to strike middle ground with both EVFC membership and the larger Enfield community had failed to accomplish its objective.

At this writer/Councilperson’s urging, and with the hope of protecting applicant privacy, the Town Board vetted candidate qualifications privately in an executive session.  For just over 20 minutes, Board members spirited themselves apart from the public, employing the Enfield Food Pantry’s first floor commodities room as a makeshift, confidential retreat.

Four Town Board members conferred on the matter that night.  Councilperson James Ricks was excused from the meeting.  Town Board members did not discuss their selection rationale after the executive session had ended.  Apart from Redmond’s plea for balance, all stayed mum.

As stated earlier:  “This writer, Councilperson Robert Lynch, cannot legally or ethically divulge the substance of the Town Board’s executive session discussions that led to its Wednesday decision.  He will only state that the private deliberations were collegial and civil; and that Board members reached their decision through collaboration and compromise; each member preferring the Board to speak with a common voice.”

Yes, Supervisor Redmond did tip her hand a bit before the executive session was called.  She remarked that Roy Barriere’s plans for travel away from Enfield both in September and over the winter could preclude his appointment.

“I think that Roy would be an amazing Commissioner,” Redmond said in praise of the applicant later not chosen.  “But I do think that he’s going to be gone for a part of the year, and it will be a little tricky for him to participate at that level.”  

“And it’s unfortunate,” Redmond added, “because I do think he would actually be a (great) Commissioner.”

Still, without doubt, it was Rollins who drew the focus of attention and public critique.  And it is he, the Highway Superintendent, whose likely appointment could complicate what might otherwise have become a smooth transition to Commission governance of Enfield’s fire service.  The pro- and anti-Rollins divide could polarize decisions relating to fire budgets, volunteer certifications, and the contractual relationships between the Fire District’s Commissioners and the EVFC.  The Fire Company still owns its building, its fire trucks, and the loyalty of the volunteers needed to fight fires and to answer EMS calls.

Buddy Rollins has his supporters, to be sure.  Diane Aramini, the Applegate Road resident who was the only person to oppose transition to Commissioner oversight during the Town Board’s Public Hearing in June, supports Rollins’ appointment.  To his defenders, the Highway Superintendent’s municipal management experience becomes a plus; a resume enhancer.  Simply put:  Buddy Rollins knows how to handle big trucks and also big bucks.

Listening thoughtfully to Ellen Woods’ concerns: Councilperson Jude Lemke (left) and this writer.

He’s also not a predictable “Amen” vote for anything and everything the EVFC wants.  Moreover, in his June 17th application for membership—Rollins was the first to file for Commissioner—the Highway Superintendent made it clear that a Board of Commissioners stacked with Fire Company members would not serve Enfield and its taxpayers:

“I feel that if it stays the way it was presented at the board meeting (that is, with perhaps at least three volunteer firefighter Commission members), that it would be a waste of a community member’s time,” Rollins wrote the Town Board.  “As the fire personnel would have the majority of the votes… community members would never have an equal vote.”

Fairly or unfairly, Rollins’ presumed appointment has touched a nerve with some in the Fire Company.  They see him as an adversary.  And perhaps also as a rival for the tax dollar.

“He would be in control of purchasing of the Fire Department,” Chris Willis complained during his late-meeting exchange with Redmond, Willis suggesting that Rollins would hold the purse strings for not one big Enfield budget, but two. 

And while the Supervisor countered that Rollins’ would only hold one vote among five, and while Fire District governance divorces fire services from direct Town control, a critic could still argue that the two budgets compete for the taxpayers’ limited resources, and that one less fire truck to buy could make one more dump truck easier to purchase.

“On the glass-half-full side,” Councilperson Cassandra Hinkle remarked, in one of her few comments during the July meeting’s closing moments, “if in five months, the Fire Department thinks this is a terrible idea, this never should have happened, you will have the ability to change it.”

“Remember, there’s an election in December,” I echoed Councilperson Hinkle.  “And the voters will have the determination.  They’ll make the final say in December.”

That they will.  But much must be done during those brief five months between when the appointed Fire Commissioners take office in August, and when their successors, whoever they are, get sworn in next January.  Contracts must be written; leases struck; rules made.  Some worry that the wrong people—one person in particular—may be calling the shots; casting the votes.

There’s one final concern:  It involves the speed of it all.  Aside from a brief flirtation with the idea back in 2007, talk of transition to a Fire District wasn’t even discussed by the Enfield Town Board until this March.  Given the dearth of local media and their general inattention to Enfield unless there’s a pie fight, this major transformation of Fire Company oversight slipped past the eyes and ears of most in Enfield until now.  That bothers those who fear that the Town Board may have put something over on them.  Even Chris Willis reportedly was not aware of it until meeting night.

“I’ve heard nothing about this changing,” Willis complained to the Board.  “There’s no notices in the mail or nothing.   How long has it been out there?”

“There’ll be an election in December,” I gesture the critical.

Actually, there were legal notices, for those who bother to read them or who still subscribe to The Ithaca Journal.  There’s the Town website.  There’s this website, too.  Yet people are busy.

“And this is like our fourth meeting about it.  We had a Public Hearing talking about it,” Redmond replied.  “I would love to be able to go to everybody’s door and knock on their door and inform them about everything that’s happening every month.  But that doesn’t happen.  So people actually have to take the time to engage.”

Easier said than done.  Expect engagement to resume at the Enfield Town Board’s August meeting.  And no matter how well he performs, no matter how hard he works to build bridges, expect Buddy Rollins to remain in the hot seat as Enfield’s newest chapter in keeping its residents safe moves forward.