Liability Concerns Prompt Fire Company Ordinance Adoption in Ship Bottom

Feb 27, 2019

Citing liability issues, the Ship Bottom Borough Council this week unanimously approved an ordinance that would allow it to take action if or when the volunteer fire company failed to do so, putting both entities at risk.

“Long before this gets to us,” Mayor William Huelsenbeck said in explaining the genesis of what the ordinance does, “you should have already taken care of it. But if you failed to do so, then we could take action.”

Christopher J. Connors, borough attorney, said the ordinance does two things: It ensures members of the Ship Bottom Volunteer Fire Co. are not criminals and don’t have a bad driving record.

“That’s it all it does. It doesn’t take over the fire company,” he said, noting the measure is consistent with the fire company’s own bylaws and, like other ordinances, is a living, breathing document that can be supplemented and amended. “If you get sued, we get sued. It's not a shot at how the fire company is operated.”

In fact, N.J.S.A. 40A:14-68(a), which permits the governing body of a municipality that does not have a paid or partially paid fire department to, by ordinance, contract with a volunteer fire company or companies within its borders for the purpose of extinguishing fires, prohibits town officials from interfering in the day-to-day operations of the fire company, according to Connors.

Wade Bradley, the Brant Beach native who was fire chief during Superstorm Sandy, said he wanted the measure to pass, but he asked the council to table it “so our people can talk to your people.”

Connors, also a state senator for the 9th District, answered every question from the audience, often letting the individual know their questions were good ones. Concerns ranged from 40 percent fire duty to language surrounding civil rights impingement and how and when a member could be dismissed.

Connors and Huelsenbeck both said the language of the ordinance was largely based on the fire company bylaws.

Under the measure, all active members of the fire company must have U.S. citizenship and participate in at least 40 percent of fire duty, which includes responding to fires and attending drills. It also mandates an annual statement be presented to the council by the company secretary. The statement must list fire calls, drills, record of attendance at both, and any other information requested by the council.

All individuals wishing to join the fire company, which was founded in 1921, must apply in writing. The name of each applicant and active members of the company will be presented to the council for final confirmation of acceptance.

All members must be above the age of 18 and provide a certificate of physical fitness from a practicing physician of the state of New Jersey after a physical examination has been performed for that purpose.

“Prior to confirmation by the Borough Council, the secretary shall request for each prospective member a motor vehicle record check through the Borough of Ship Bottom and a criminal record check through the Ship Bottom Police Department or MORFO Track,” according to the measure. “The secretary of the fire company shall also request a motor vehicle and criminal record check, as set forth herein, for each person who is an active member of the fire company.”

The ordinance also determines the process for removing any member of the fire company for cause and by a majority vote of the members in good standing as well as by a majority of the council. Violation by any member of any of the requirements constitutes good cause for removal.

Individuals would be disqualified from membership and considered for removal if they were charged with an indictable offense or are currently under indictment; charged with any offense involving domestic violence; charged with two or more offenses of driving while intoxicated as defined under state statute or was convicted of driving while intoxicated within the last five  years; is currently on probation or has been on probation at any time within the last 12 months; and has pleaded guilty or has been found guilty of any motor vehicle moving violation five or more times within the past two years.

Applicants and active members would also be barred if they’ve been dishonorably discharged from any branch of military service or law enforcement; adjudicated by a court or found by an employer to have violated any person’s civil rights; was convicted of an offense involving or touching on previous public office, position or employment; and renounced his or her United States citizenship.

An active member or applicant with a restraining order for harassing, stalking or threatening, or a restraining order for any domestic violence-related offense would also be disqualified, as well as someone who has sold, manufactured or distributed any illegal controlled substance in his or her life; engaged in the unauthorized usage of any illegal drug while employed in a position of public trust; and had a license suspension/revocation and/or multiple motor vehicle violations.

“I ask why we’re doing something, and I’ve been told we should have been doing it for 10 years,” Huelsenbeck said, reiterating that the borough’s insurance company is, at least in part, behind the reason for the ordinance.

The other reason, the mayor said, is that over the past three years the borough and the fire company administration didn’t always see eye-to-eye.

“There was an incident,” Huelsenbeck said. “We were never told of it. We found out through our insurance company, and when we asked about it, we were told that the fire company was going to get its own insurance. You did, but it wasn’t enough (at the time). We still insure the fire company the same as we always have.”

Huelsenbeck said he wakes every morning knowing there is $1.4 billion in real estate in the gateway community to Long Beach Island.

“I need a good fire company in my town,” the mayor said. “We’re really on your side. It’s what we have to do (to protect the town).”

Resident Mary Egan said the town feels safer because of the men and women of the fire company.

“I hate the idea of them feeling badly because they feel there is a bull’s eye on their back, like someone is going to pull the rug out from under them,” she said. “Please say something that is going to make them feel better.”

Rich McDonough, a member of the fire company who attended the meeting as a borough resident, said all the firefighters need to feel good about themselves is to know that they have a good relationship with borough officials.

“Fifty percent of the money used to operate the fire company,” he said, “comes from the people behind me. What they do comes at a tremendous cost that could never be duplicated.”

That cost includes leaving behind family, friends, dinners, special occasions and sleep in order to protect residents, according to Scott Peraria, a former borough resident who now resides in Stafford Township but whose business is located in Ship Bottom. He rejoined the fire company because his daughter asked him to.

“This is not a witch hunt,” Councilman Peter Rossi said after fire company members and a handful of borough residents addressed the governing body on Ordinance 2019-03. “We’ve done the background checks; the rest is up to you.”

— Gina G. Scala

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