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Fire and Rescue Association votes against suspending Fairplay fire company

November 20, 2008|By ERIN JULIUS

SMITHSBURG -- The Washington County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association on Thursday night voted against suspending the membership of the Fairplay Volunteer Fire Company by the narrowest of margins.

Thursday's vote came after at least four Fairplay volunteer firefighters were informed Nov. 11 by the Fairplay company's president that their memberships were not being renewed, the affected firefighters have told The Herald-Mail.

Each member company gets one vote. According to the organization's bylaws, two-thirds of its members would have had to approve the recommendation for it to pass.

The recommendation failed by one vote, said Glenn Fishack, president of the volunteer association

For about two hours prior to the vote, the Fairplay president, his attorney, county officials and Fairplay residents discussed the situation.

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Kevin Lewis, director of the Washington County Division of Fire and Emergency Services, and Fishack met in closed session Tuesday with the Washington County Commissioners.

"We agreed Tuesday to respect the vote of the association," Washington County Commissioner William J. Wivell said Thursday night. He and Commissioners Vice President Terry Baker attended Thursday night's meeting.

"We came to listen to both sides of the issue and hear concerns," Baker said.

The complaints against Fairplay were that its board has suspended people and that the company didn't have enough active firefighters to run the company, Fishack said.

State regulations require a company to have 20 members, with 10 of them properly qualified firefighters.

Hagerstown attorney Edward L. Kuczynski, representing the Fairplay company, argued to the crowd of about 100 that the volunteer association had no business interfering with how the Fairplay corporation functioned internally and dealt with its personnel. The association does have authority to become involved if the Fairplay company doesn't have adequate numbers, but it does, he said.

Kuczynski also argued that the situation was motivated by the personalities of those involved, citing a family relationship between one of the "disgruntled firefighters" and someone working in Lewis' office.

Fairplay president Bill Pennington said during the meeting that his fire company had 12 qualified firefighters.

Fishack maintained that, according to lists and resignations provided to the association, Fairplay did not have enough qualified firefighters to remain active.

Pennington had not received any resignations, and blamed personal conflicts for those memberships that were not renewed last week.

"I've got the support of my chief," he said. "Those people that can get along will move forward."

Fairplay Chief Leonard Heller did not attend Thursday night's meeting because he was in firefighter training, Kuczynski said.

Michelle Asper, whose husband has volunteered at Fairplay, said she has attended several of the company's meetings and never seen any insubordinate behavior. Those whose membership was not renewed are professional firefighters, emergency medical technicians or are in law enforcement, she said.

"These are people who don't have people problems," she said.

Asper called the decision not to renew the firefighters' memberships a "repeated pattern of the president and chief."

In 1997, an assistant chief and two other members were dismissed from the company, The Herald-Mail reported. At that time, Heller and Pennington said those dismissals were punishment for "severe" violations on the part of the assistant chief and insubordination by the others.

Those dismissed claimed it either was a power play that got them dismissed or they were being blamed for anonymous letters sent to officials, The Herald-Mail reported at the time.

Stacy Kopp, wife of one of the affected firefighters, Mark Kopp, also spoke.

Pennington called her husband a troublemaker and a negative influence, she said. But Mark Kopp had applied for and obtained about $300,000 in grants for equipment for Fairplay, and convinced two other municipalities to donate equipment to the company.

"That doesn't sound like a negative influence to me," she said.

Many in attendance clapped after each of the women finished speaking.

After the vote, Fishack said the association was going to get together today with Fairplay to get the situation resolved.

Pennington declined to comment on the advice of his attorney.

"We move forward from here," Kuczynski said.

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