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Chapman: Do they think we’re stupid?

By Staff | Dec 5, 2014

I’m not so sure I would have made it through this fiery week with my sanity had I not gone to Iowa City for Thanksgiving. Seeing family doesn’t happen often for us Easterners and it proved incredibly soothing to escape the day-to-day and relax with my sister’s family.

I returned to Rugby refreshed and ready for a new month, which always starts with a Monday city council meeting. Listening to half-truths and arrogance is a lot easier to stomach when the mind has a chance to hit restart.

By now, many of you have heard that about 25 firefighters attended Monday’s meeting, seeking answers and accountability for a botched controlled fire – started by the public works department – in a slough between 3rd Avenue and Country Road on Nov. 21. The intention of the fire was good and aimed to root out rodents near homes. You may have already read the transcription of the nearly 30-minute discussion or heard an extended clip on the radio.

Unfortunately, little accountability was found and all parties involved in the issue deserve at least some blame. That said, it was apparent that a few officials didn’t grasp the seriousness of the public safety issue the fire presented. Appreciation for the incredible work our VOLUNTEER firefighters do is something the majority of us feel. Communication should have been better between the fire department and the mayor, but this one falls on the city executive, and few people in the room Monday night were buying an attempt diminish an issue that deserved a lengthy inquiry.

By my count, Mayor Arland Geiszler 11 times tried to wrap up the discussion without earnestly taking any responsibility for his role. You won’t get the full story from this column nor did the people who attended the meeting. Let’s read between the lines, shall we?

The mayor said: “Who gave the authority? I can’t answer that. I wasn’t there.”

Hmm… how convenient. The fire chief and assistant fire chief never fully endorsed the fire and urged against it the day of. Must be nice to simply let it fall on the beleaguered public works supervisor. He’s become an easy scapegoat, hasn’t he?

The mayor said: “The fire is out. It’s over. It’s covered with snow. What good reason is there to go further than that? I’ll open it up.”

Hmm… let’s start with the safety of the public. That’s plenty enough reason to go further. Why was a law enforcement official defied? Why were orders from the chief and assistant chief not followed? Why was the issue mysteriously taken off the agenda? Why was someone preparing to light more of the slough without previously looking at the wind forecast for the entire afternoon?

The mayor said: “Whatever faults there were. That will be recognized.”

Hmm… interesting, considering not many people left the meeting feeling that all at fault recognized their culpability.

The mayor said: “At this stage, it really is immaterial which way the wind was from.”

Hmm… I’m not so sure homeowners in that area would agree. Nor will the firefighters, who understand how quickly wind can make a fire go from controlled to uncontrollable. It’s far from immaterial when more fire was about to be lit with wind gusts reaching 34.6 mph. That could be dangerous from any direction.

The support faction didn’t fare much better and kudos to Ward 3 Council Member Joel Berg for keeping his cool and refusing to simply let the issue go away.

Ward 1 Council Member Neil Lotvedt: “We’ll just let it grow up next year and you can let your constituents worry about it.”

Hmm… That’s a real responsible take on it. Instead of acknowledging a legitimate concern, let’s play petty. Since Berg’s bigger than me, I’ll address that comment. All voters in the city with concerns be sure to contact your ward’s council member and Mr. Lotvedt. He shouldn’t have a problem sharing your worries. All contact info for elected officials can be found on page 2.

The mayor said: “Let’s all accept responsibility for our parts in it and go on because it’s not going to change the situation.”

Hmm… OK! Sounds great. I’m sure others will start accepting responsibility after you do.

Then came the removing of the fire issue from the agenda, a violation of open-meetings law, considering the community expected the issue to be discussed. Why else did the room fill with firefighters? So, although there is an opportunity to add items to the agenda at the beginning of the meeting, as Ward 3 Council Member Jim Hoffert pointed out, that would be too late for the public had citizens looked at the posted agenda earlier in the day.

The mayor said: “Yeah, I was surprised to see it removed.”

Hmm… Pardon me for not believing that in the slightest. To make the matter worse, he then called on the acting city auditor and deputy auditor, who claimed to have received an unsigned note requesting the slough fire issue be removed from the agenda.

The word inadvertent was thrown around. Save it. There was nothing inadvertent about the agenda change and someone in the room that night was fine letting the blame shift to the auditors. That’s pretty cowardly. Can you believe they lost an auditor this year?

There you have it. This city has an accountability issue, one that’s been exposed often this year. These things start at the top.

(Thank you to our volunteer firefighters for sacrificing their time, holidays and putting their lives on the line. Thank you for voicing your concerns and participating in the democratic process. Your concerns are valid and not entirely falling on deaf ears.)

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