Firefighters walk away rather than work with Wabash Township trustee. What now?
Judge won’t stand in way of layoffs of firefighters. Volunteers say they’re done. Trustee says, don’t worry, West Lafayette will cover us. What next in Wabash Township?
Tuesday afternoon, a little over an hour after a Tippecanoe County judge shot down a last-ditch effort to stop the township trustee from laying off Wabash Township’s three, full-time firefighters, the remaining volunteers filtered into the station along Klondike Road with a decision to make.
Bottom line: What now?
Their vote: Starting Wednesday morning, when paid fire staff member were formally gone, the volunteers would be, too.
Mike Dwyer, president of the Wabash Township Fire Department Association, said members of the nonprofit group didn’t believe an all-volunteer department was a safe option and would be potentially overwhelming without the steady presence of a paid crew. They voted that they would quit responding to calls at a station – one that ran on roughly 3.25 calls a day, through May – until Township Trustee Jennifer Teising either agreed to a contract that called off the layoffs or was out of office.
Dwyer said the association owned the pagers used to contact volunteers and that they’d hang on to those. So, if someone heard a dispatch of a heart attack down the street, “that would be up to an individual to decide what to do.”
Other than that, the fire department will have no firefighters, leaving neighboring West Lafayette Fire Department to pick up the slack.
“It’s something I don’t think any of us ever thought we’d be talking about, honestly,” Dwyer said. “It makes me want to puke. … Then again, none of us ever saw all this coming, either.”
“All this,” as Dwyer put it, would be a lingering, months-long standoff between Teising, firefighters and her township board over how to pay to expand the paid ranks in the township’s fire station – a battle that found no one eye-to-eye on funding and the trustee pulling the plug on the jobs of firefighters Joe Wade, Travis Merkel and Drew Hampton, as of Tuesday night.
As layoffs loomed, Tippecanoe Circuit Judge Sean Persin had ruled the firefighters didn’t have a case when they argued Teising had abdicated her position. And Teising showed no signs of rescinding her move, despite two weeks of nearly nonstop township board meetings designed to persuade or even shame her into backing down. (As board member Angel Valentin put it, the past few exhausting weeks “were like ‘Groundhog’s Day,’ only each day kept getting worse.”)
The township board met again Tuesday evening, hours after Persin’s ruling, mainly to tee off on Teising – they started the session by passing a petition calling on the county prosecutor to pursue removing the trustee “no matter what it takes” – and take stock in what’s next in what they called a public safety crisis.
Teising appeared by Zoom. But she declined to take questions or make a report after township board members insisted Teising participate in the meeting under oath. (The move left the township attorney baffled and advising Teising to keep quiet. Several times, after she said she’d been advised not to speak at the meeting, Teising stared at the Zoom monitor in awkward silence as board member questions about fire department finances, taxing and township assistance money hung in the air.)
In the silence, Wabash Township Deputy Chief Jim Lewis called Teising soulless, telling her: “I don’t know how one person can ruin a fire department, but you’d done it.”
Contacted after the meeting, Teising said she heard about the firefighters association’s vote during the meeting and was waiting for a confirmation letter.
“That’s certainly not what I was expecting to hear,” Teising said. “That’s something they’ve promised to their neighbors and to township residents, that they’d serve.”
Teising said she questioned the decision, given that so much talk – not to mention legal action – had gone into how the loss of three firefighters would compromise township safety. (“I don’t understand the logic, at all,” Teising said.)
Was she nervous about basically having no fire department? Teising said she had faith that the West Lafayette Fire Department could cover Wabash Township fire calls.
Did she take it as a statement the firefighters were done working with her?
“I’m the trustee,” Teising said. “I’m the choice they have right now.”
West Lafayette’s job now?
As the clock ticked on Wabash Township Tuesday, West Lafayette Mayor John Dennis said he hadn’t spoken to Teising in weeks. But Dennis said he and West Lafayette Fire Chief Jeff Need had touched on the situation often in recent days.
West Lafayette, which is in Wabash Township but has its own municipal fire department, has a mutual aid agreement with the Wabash Township Fire Department. The two departments also are part of an “automatic aid” agreement signed in 2020, and also includes departments at Lafayette, Purdue and Battle Ground. Need said the point of “automatic aid” is to erase some fire department boundaries and get the closest available squads and equipment to a fire or emergency.
“We’ve talked with our dispatchers and our personnel, so they know what’s happening,” Need said. “I want the citizens to know, we’re going to be there. If they dial 911, we’ll be there. We’ll figure out the rest later.”
Dennis said that if the West Side firefighters are called to respond to a fire that Wabash Township can’t get to because they aren’t staffed, the city could charge the township an hourly rate a bit over $900.
“We can’t do anything about irresponsible behavior,” Dennis said. “Can we cover things? She ain’t wrong. But she ain’t right, either. … But we can make sure the people of Wabash Township feel safe. No matter what happens, we’ll have their back.”
Bill Jones, Tippecanoe Township trustee, said his Battle Ground-based fire department would respond, too. But he said Teising was causing problems that could leave his crews exposed.
“This trustee is either, you do it my way or nothing,” Jones said. “This is going to affect us, if I have to have a tanker out where Wabash used to handle.”
About the legal fight
In the motion for a preliminary injunction filed Friday, hoping to save the firefighters’ jobs, the Wabash Township Fire Department Association argued that Teising “has abdicated her office of trustee” for a number of reasons, including accusations that she sold her home and moved out of the township, while feuding with firefighters and township board members.
The nonprofit organization includes the paid firefighters and a crew of 15 to 20 volunteers in Wabash Township, which has the busiest fire department outside Lafayette and West Lafayette in Tippecanoe County.
They claimed that Teising was about to terminate the three firefighters out of retribution, “for no good reason.” Township board members joined the suit Tuesday, saying Teising was about to leave the unincorporated part of Wabash Township in danger.
Teising, through her township attorney, Ray Biederman, said that Indiana law give trustees – not township boards, not fire chiefs, not anyone else – authority to oversee the fire department, including how it is structured. In recent weeks, Teising has argued that after she couldn’t get buy-in on a fire district idea – one that included a series of emergency loans over the next several years before handing control of the department to Tippecanoe County commissioners as a way to grow the paid firefighting ranks – she was compelled to lay off firefighters and transition to a combination of part-timers and volunteers.
Teising did not appear in either of two court hearings held Monday and Tuesday in Tippecanoe Circuit Court. Contacted Tuesday, she referred questions about that case to Biederman.
Biederman questioned whether the firefighters had standing to essentially run Teising out of office. He said the case raised a dangerous precedent that would allow citizens unhappy with a public official to sue rather than take care of things at the ballot box.
Tippecanoe Circuit Judge Sean Persin had similar questions. He said case law showed that prosecutors had had success arguing that a public official should be out of office, due to criminal behavior. Teising faces 20 counts of theft in a criminal case filed in May, stemming from similar questions that she collected a trustee paycheck while living outside the township.
(Teising filed for a change of venue Monday, saying she couldn’t get a fair trial in Tippecanoe County, considering media coverage, calls for her to resign, petition drives and fundraisers for legal expenses to go after her. No hearing had been scheduled, as of Tuesday, on the change of venue. Her trial was still scheduled to start July 29, according to court records.)
Persin said election opponents, who could make a direct claim to a seat, also had won. (That included a 2019 case out of Dayton, where a town council member was ousted when a challenger raised questions about a 20-year-old felony and whether that should have kept the candidate off the ballot. The challenger lost on Election Day but won in court.)
But Persin said no taxpayer had been able to do the same. Persin suggested during a Tuesday hearing conducted over Zoom that that motion “boils down to this.”
“The firefighters have a stake in the game,” Persin said Tuesday, “but not necessarily in the office of trustee.”
Mario Massillamany, the firefighters association’s attorney, said the case, if won, would set a precedent in Indiana.
Persin repeated Tuesday what he told those in the courtroom during a hastily called hearing Monday, timed to have an answer before layoffs took effect: “We’re all under the gun here.”
Ultimately, Persin denied the firefighters. He led his ruling with a snippet from a 2019 Indiana Supreme Court ruling, State v. Neff: “Turning to the judiciary to remove a duly-elected public officer from office is a radical departure from our usual democratic process because it risks silencing the collective voice of the people, spoken in each election. As such, it is a remedy rarely sought and even more rarely granted.”
Merkel, one of the three firefighters, sat through the hearings Monday and Tuesday, not sure what to expect. By Tuesday evening, he was clearing gear from his locker.
“I’ve become part of this family,” Merkel said during the meeting. He was hired in September 2020, part of a department expansion fueled by an emergency firefighting loan that produced a special tax and more than $400,000.
“When tomorrow comes, I’m scared and worried for this township,” Merkel said. “When the bell goes off for a call, I’m not sure who’s going to be available to respond. I’m truly sorry, you deserve better.”
Township board’s next move
The township board was still sorting its options.
Among them, they outlined details of an emergency response department, essentially a takeover of the fire department from the trustee, using money available in the budget to pay firefighters through 2021. In the past week, the board also authorized a transfer of $500,000 from a firefighting fund designed for large equipment needs to one that could be used for operations, including firefighter salaries, through 2023.
The board laid the groundwork for that in a series of emergency meetings in the past two weeks. The plan, dubbed a “nuclear option” by board members, would transfer the firefighting operation, staff and equipment to the township board, funded by existing firefighting funds. It also would maintain fire department staffing as it is now, meaning no layoffs Tuesday.
Township board members said it would be an unprecedented move. And it might not hold up in court, given a 2009 attorney general’s opinion that only trustees have that authority.
“We understand that going in,” Angel Valentin, a township board member, said. “If the trustee refuses to respond to an emergency response department, we’ll have to be ready to sue her. This is a matter of public safety and reliable fire protection. She’s pushed this to the wall.”
Tuesday night, when contacted, Teising said she wasn’t going along with that.
“I don’t see a reason to respond to something that’s not legal,” Teising said. “I will continue to manage the township. I’ll continue to do my part to serve the community. I’m not going anywhere.”
On the way out
As chairs were being folded and stowed in the fire engine bay, Wade started trucking dress uniforms, hats and assorted gear to his truck parked in the fire station’s back lot. Hampton had help rolling a grill to a pickup out back.
Wade said he’d been fortunate “to have the greatest job in the world.” He talked about Purdue students who became volunteers and how he got to train them “when they found out engineering wasn’t as cool as being a firefighter.”
“Joe and Travis and Drew, they were willing to get the dirty stuff done,” Dwyer said. “They made this place work.”
Had Wade held out hope that the trustee would back down or the judge would have ruled in his favor?
“Did I think this would be resolved?” Wade asked. “No. Seems like for the past three months, we’ve come up with some sort of solution to fix whatever problem she has, and it never pans out. This was a pretty much last-ditch effort. And I was not going to get my hopes up.”
Wade gave Dwyer a hug and went back to hauling personal gear out of the fire station on his last night on the job.
“I have nothing but great memories of this place,” Wade said. “Well, there’s one bad memory, but it’s not worth thinking about.”
This and that …
Columbian Park and the need to go: Have you seen Columbian Park lately. Holy cow. The new, $21 million Loeb Stadium. Construction of a new carousel house just past Loeb Stadium’s center field. A July 5 dedication set for a rebuilt Memorial Island amphitheater and a new seawall around a freshly dredged lagoon. And starting Monday, pedal boats return to the lagoon for the first time in at least two decades. (Rides will be $4 for 30 minutes in the two-person boats.) Add this to the major touch-ups at Lafayette’s central park: Coming this fall, a new restroom facility. Sure, you laugh. “Not a very glamorous project, but a very important project,” Parks Superintendent Claudine Laufman told the Lafayette Board of Works Tuesday morning, as she asked permission to advertise for construction bids. The 1,433-square-foot bathroom facility will go where Jenks Rest – once home to the Lafayette Senior Center – was on the north side of the park. Bonus: It will be heated and air-conditioned. “Obviously, we’ve made a lot of improvements to Columbian Park, and this becomes a very necessary addition, very important,” Laufman said. In the meantime, the port-a-pots remain in that section of the park, reminding everyone that Laufman’s last comment was on point.
Familiar faces, Purdue trustees reappointed: Gov. Eric Holcomb on Monday gave fresh, three-year terms to Purdue trustees Michael Berghoff, JoAnn Brouillette and Vanessa Castagna. Berghoff, the trustees chairman, is founder and president of Lenex Steel Corp. in Indianapolis and has been on the board since 2009. Brouillette is managing partner and president of Demeter LP, a Fowler-based agricultural and commercial warehouse company. She’s been a Purdue trustee since 2006. Castagna, one of three Purdue Alumni Association-chosen trustees, is a veteran retail executive and has been on the board since 2013. Holcomb also appointed a new student trustee to a two-year term: Mark Gee, a graduate student from Johnston, Iowa, going for his master’s in agricultural and biological engineering. Student trustees are full voting members of the nine-member board.
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