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Editorial: City can't hide behind closed doors forever

Eleven volunteer firefighters were disciplined by the city, but after a closed-door council meeting, we're still no closer to understanding why
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After a long, heated and raucous closed-door meeting of city council on Tuesday night, we're not any closer to understanding why 11 volunteer firefighters were disciplined last week, nor exactly what form of discipline they received.

We know three of them were terminated. But not why. The rules of closed door meetings mean decisions made during the session can be made public, but the discussion cannot.

If no decision was made, nothing that occurred during that meeting is public. Discussing a personnel matter in which individuals will be identified is a legitimate reason for council to close the door. Privacy should be protected. Until, that is, it's time for it not to be.

The union representing the volunteers, CLAC Local 920, said the disciplinary action was in response to the volunteers speaking their minds about Greater Sudbury’s aborted fire optimization plan.

That could be the case. We just don’t really know at this point because, despite repeated requests by Northern Life/Sudbury.com, the city hasn’t made Fire and Paramedic Chief Trevor Bain, or anyone else qualified to speak on the city’s behalf, to media to answer questions.

The disciplinary action is the culmination of eight or nine months of tension between the city, volunteer firefighters and rural residents that began with the much-maligned fire optimization plan unveiled last winter.

That plan, drafted by Bain at the insistence of city council, ostensibly aimed to achieve a “one city, one service” model of fire protection.

The idea was to ensure that no matter where someone lives in the Nickel City, from the most rural to the most urban areas, they can be guaranteed a similar speedy response when a fire call is made to 911. 

How that message was communicated to the public though … that left much to be desired.

The public meetings held last winter on the fire optimization plan (FOP) had no clear purpose. That those meetings were called before the plan had even been presented to council still leaves us scratching our heads.

Those who attended the meetings heard talk of closing fire stations, hiring scores of new professional firefighters and massively increasing costs (by $15 million a year) to fund the FOP.

Because no one understood the purpose of the public meetings (we assume they were aimed at taking the temperature of the public’s reaction to an overhaul of Greater Sudbury Fire Services, but no one’s really said that), people were left with the impression the plan was a done deal.

There’s certainly merit to modernization, especially for an amalgamated city that inherited the fire protection services of several formerly independent municipalities and did nothing to streamline them. But that isn’t the message that was communicated at the public meetings the fire chief led last winter.

Many people, particularly those in rural areas, saw the plan as a kind of conspiracy to improve service in urban areas at the expense of rural residents; to replace more economical volunteers with expensive professionals (which volunteers, like the ones who were disciplined, understandably took as an insult to their abilities and years of service); and to let a city manager — namely the fire chief — engage in empire building.

That interpretation of events is entirely the city’s fault. No one understood what the plan was for, its real purpose or the rationale behind the public meetings.

And now, six months after city council shelved the FOP, 11 volunteer firefighters are being disciplined for, apparently, voicing their opinions and their concerns.

Certainly, both volunteer firefighters and professional firefighters packed those public meetings. From our coverage of the meetings, we know volunteers were very vocal in their opposition to the FOP. They felt the plan aimed to push them aside and were pretty upset about it. Imagine that.

Regardless, the optics of this discipline are abysmal. Coming six months after the plan died, it almost appears to be retribution against volunteers who spoke up against Trevor Bain's fire plan.

The cone of silence around this issue is troubling. The 11 volunteers were disciplined, which prompted their union to issue a statement, and yet the city wasn’t prepared for the inevitable flood of questions from the media, the public or even city councillors.

That city councillors themselves appear to be out of the loop on this is beyond the pale. With an issue that's so important and has been so divisive, how can the left hand not know what the right hand is doing?

Both Ward 2’s Michael Vagnini and Ward 5’s Bob Kirwan echoed the firefighters' union in saying the discipline could be a result of provisions in the city employee guidelines that prevent city staff from making public statement concerning issues before council. But even they didn't know for sure before Tuesday night.

One thing is for certain, the City of Greater Sudbury has a tendency to wade, headlong and unawares, into controversies of its own making, and then must spend time, sometimes money, and whole lot of public trust putting out fires.

Tuesday's closed door meeting didn't provide any answers. But answers will be forthcoming. The truth will come out. 

The city can't hide behind closed doors forever.




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