Frank, public discussion is needed

Published 11:01 pm Thursday, August 29, 2013

When the decision of a city employee will result in the death of a treasured institution, the people who built that institution, nurtured it and supported it with time and money through the years deserve a thorough explanation of the decision and the confidence that their elected leaders have carefully considered what it will mean not just to budgets but also for the character of the city.

Just five months into his new job with Suffolk Fire and Rescue, Chief Cedric Scott has raised alarms with his decision to demote the Nansemond Suffolk Volunteer Rescue Squad to second-responder status for emergency medical calls. The volunteer group had held first-responder status on nights, weekends and holidays, and its service has saved the city significant funds, while promoting a spirit of volunteerism and giving emergency workers around Hampton Roads a great place to train for the certifications they need to work in the field.

Scott’s proposed change would mean volunteers could only respond to incidents when the city’s paid staff were on other calls. The result, officials say, will be that NSVRS is needed for only a few calls per month, possibly as little as one-tenth of the number they currently answer. With so few expected calls, NSVRS Chief Jeff Brittingham says, it is unlikely the squad would be able to attract the volunteers it needs to remain useful.

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Scott may have very good reasons for having made his decision, but the people of Suffolk, who have directly supported the volunteer squad through taxes and donations for 53 years, have not been made privy to those reasons, and City Council members have shown little public interest in either exploring the basis for the decision or in helping the people of Suffolk understand it.

During last Wednesday’s City Council meeting, councilmen Roger Fawcett and Mike Duman expressed their concerns about the decision, following the impassioned pleas of several NSVRS members for council to intervene and save the squad from its potential fate. But Mayor Linda Johnson and councilmen Curtis Milteer and Charles Brown spoke quickly to quell the discussion, claiming that it’s inappropriate for council members to question staff decisions.

In interviews on Thursday, Johnson and City Attorney Helivi Holland said Wednesday’s meeting was not the venue for the discussion. Holland cited city and state codes that put the city manager in charge of “day to day operations” in Suffolk. And both suggested that questioning Chief Scott’s decision would be a personnel matter that should be handled in private meetings, rather than in a public forum.

The latter contention represents a misreading of the purpose of closing the discussion of personnel matters to the public. City Council has a responsibility to examine the policies put in place by those who work for the city. If Chief Scott had set a policy that fire and rescue services would be unavailable every Tuesday, for instance, council would have a responsibility to address the policy and to do so publicly so citizens would know where they stand on the issue. His decision would not be a personnel matter, but one of public policy.

Similarly, if council members cannot question the decisions of city staff or provide direction regarding matters of city policy because those policies affect day-to-day operations, then what is their purpose? A City Council emasculated to the degree suggested by those who halted the discussion about Chief Scott’s decision regarding Nansemond Suffolk Volunteer Rescue Squad would have little reason to exist, aside from hiring a city manager — and, by extension, other staff members — whose decisions then could never be questioned.

Before allowing a revered city institution such as the volunteer rescue squad to be disbanded, City Council should frankly and publicly discuss the ramifications of that choice. Failure to do so would be an abrogation of the responsibility that its members were granted by the voters of Suffolk.