Traverse City Record-Eagle

August 12, 2012

TC, firefighters fight to win hearts, minds


---- — In the dustup about Traverse City firefighters being denied the use of city fire trucks and other equipment as props at a "meet the firefighters" picnic, keep in mind that this is just another bit of stage play in the battle over possibly merging the department with surrounding townships.

City firefighters said they wanted to bring five to six on-duty firefighters to F&M Park Aug. 18 along with fire and rescue trucks and other equipment so the public could get to meet the guys.

The city said policy doesn't allow staff time or equipment to be used "when it's not a city-sponsored event or city-endorsed."

More candidly, the firefighters wanted to use the big trucks and other gear as visual aids to remind the public how dangerous their jobs can be and how crucial they are to the city. For its part, the city has no intention of helping firefighters portray themselves as heroes the city can't do without.

Proof of the firefighters' intent came in union press release issued after the city said no.

"It is our opinion that the city is purposely making it difficult for you the public to receive information about the potential dismantling of your city fire department," the release said. How the absence of the big equipment at the picnic makes it difficult for the public to get information about the department isn't clear, but the desire to use the trucks and other gear to lure taxpayers to the picnic is pretty straightforward.

The city does indeed have a policy that forbids using city-owned equipment "when it's not a city-sponsored event or city-endorsed." That's a must-have for any public entity. And yes, "You could end up with all sorts of employee use of city assets if you didn't have such a policy," as Assistant City Manager Makayla Vitous said. Using fire trucks in events like the National Cherry Festival is different because the festival is approved by the city commission and involves city staff, she said.

But it's also likely that a piece or two of department equipment, such as a rescue truck or some masks, hats, coats, axes and air tanks, have over the years shown up at a school or some organization's fair as a meet-the-public effort without formal authorization from the city.

The two sides are working to win over the public to their point of view, and this is just another skirmish.

Firefighters think (rightly so) their jobs are threatened by a merger and will fight it every step of the way. The city, faced with a mounting fiscal crisis, is determined to maintain a fire department merger as an option that could resolve most of its financial issues.

Both sides know public support is crucial, particularly if the issue ever makes it to the ballot.

The sparring is sure to continue.