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Trustee goes for a drink, as board says it’s ready to take over fire department
Wabash Township board girds for legal battle with ‘nuclear option’ of taking over the fire department. Trustee Jennifer Teising, set to layoff firefighters, calls meeting illegal, goes for a beer
On a night when the Wabash Township Trustee Jennifer Teising was in the building but refused to join an emergency township board meeting about what they were calling a public safety crisis, board members insisted they were ready to take over the fire department to keep the trustee from laying off the township’s full-time firefighters.
“The nuclear option,” board member Brendan Betz called it – one in reserve if Teising doesn’t, by Friday, OK a fire department contract that, essentially, would keep on three, full-time firefighters she’s said would be let go June 29.
Whether the takeover move would carry any weight, according to state statute, even township board members said they weren’t sure.
If anything, Betz said, it could force all the players into a legal battle the board hopes would toss a wrench into layoff threat from a trustee the board has pushed to resign in recently months. “And that,” Betz said at the end of a desperate meeting at the fire station, “is something more than we’ve had to hold onto, so far.”
“This isn’t a thing I’d consider normal,” Angel Valentin, a township board member, said. “But these haven’t been normal times. Frankly, these are embarrassing times. Frustrating, embarrassing and, I’ll say it, dangerous times.”
What was Teising’s take?
She wasn’t there.
Trustee calls meeting illegal
Teising, cracking the door to a township trustee office that has been closed for more than a week, said she was busy with a township assistance meeting when the 6 p.m. Tuesday meeting started. (She poked her head out the door to say the trustee entrance to the fire engine bay was closed and that we’d have to go around front.) In a short interview that followed, Teising said the township board meeting wasn’t properly posted because it wasn’t taped to the door of her entrance. (“That’s the official way, according to our lawyer,” Teising said. “Do you see it up here?”)
Besides, Teising said, she figured the meeting would be potentially “hostile” and that she had no reason to get beat up like she did a week earlier, when she got into it with the board and crowd via Zoom about her decision in early June to let the firefighters go.
That move met with angry pleas from the board and residents that the money was in the township budget to keep the firefighters through the end of the year – seeing that they were hired with money from a special tax residents in unincorporated Wabash Township started paying in 2020.
“Why hire them, just to fire them?” asked Kayla Merkel, wife of Travis Merkel, one of the three firefighters on the chopping block. “Is it because you’re financially irresponsible? Or is it because of retaliation? Both, in my opinion, are grounds for everyone in this township to demand resignation immediately.”
The board a week ago offered to transfer money among firefighting funds to give the township through 2023 to figure out a long-term funding solution for the department, as Teising insists the township needs. But she rejected that offer a day later, saying she’d stick with a plan to replace full-time firefighters with part-timers, some of whom would work out of their homes.
As for Tuesday night? “I’m not going to an illegal meeting, that’s it,” Teising said.
‘A giant middle finger to this community’
Teising’s absence coursed through the second tense public meeting in a week at the fire station.
“That’s a giant middle finger to this community,” Valentin said.
About halfway through a three-hour meeting devoted to finding a way to challenge Teising’s control of the fire department – and basically find any reason to run Teising out of the job – word sifted through the crowd that she’d left her office and drove off. During a 10-minute break in this meeting, to give board time to print a few items, photos circulated on cellphones of Teising sitting outside a West Lafayette establishment having a drink. (The photos were confirmed by three sources, including a photographer from the Journal & Courier who went to see for himself.)
Incredulous would be a good way to sum up the mood in the room.
“I take it incredibly personal that she was on the other side of that door and didn’t walk in here,” Ed Ward, former Wabash Township Fire Department chief Teising fired in December 2020, said.
Ward said he wondered how much longer volunteers would stick it out, knowing that response times would be slower and have lingering doubts about whether the trustee would have their backs if something went wrong. Deputy Chief Jim Lewis said response times in parts of Wabash Township outside West Lafayette would go up at least five minutes – about the time it takes him to get to the station from his home – if no firefighters were on station with the trucks. Board members said they anticipated fire insurance rates to go up in the township if Teising’s plan went through.
“This is a crisis,” Lewis said.
A possible fire department contract
This week, someone from the fire department was expected to meet with Teising about a firefighting contract. Jim Dwyer, Wabash Township Firefighter Association president, said the proposed contract is similar to one sent to the trustee June 8. Dwyer said the contract – something never done in Wabash Township – would “allow us to manage ourselves.” That would include personnel reviews. It also would extend time beyond June 29 for the full-time, paid firefighters.
The township board backed that contract proposal.
Betz said that if Teising accepts it, the board will meet Friday to ratify the decision.
He said that if Teising rejects it, the board will meet Friday to consider creating an emergency response department that would bypass the trustee, would be funded by existing firefighting funds and would report directly to the township board.
Betz called it a matter of public safety for a township board running out of options, short of Teising softening her stance or being convicted of a crime. (That’s a possibility, actually: Teising faces 20 counts of theft connected to accusations that she collected trustee paychecks while she lived outside the township from June 2020 to March 2021. Her trial is set for late July.)
Betz said if Teising didn’t back down – “That’s really the best option for all of us if she would,” he said – then “this is where litigation starts.”
Is the move in bounds?
Tuesday night, it wasn’t clear who would be suing or who would get sued in that situation. But Betz said a judge’s order might be the only way out.
“This is a tool, way down in the bottom of the toolbox, that we’re not even sure really works,” Betz said.
Good point. In 2009, then state Sen. Brandt Hershman, a Buck Creek Republican, asked for an opinion on whether a township board had the authority to oversee the daily operation of township emergency services. Greg Zoeller, Indiana attorney general at the time, wrote in an official opinion that a board’s authority ended with legislative matters.
“The board’s authority does not extend to operating, managing or overseeing the daily operations of emergency services once the board’s legislative function has been completed,” Zoeller wrote. “It is my opinion that the township trustee, not the township board or any officers of the board, has the authority to oversee the day-to-day operation of services, including medical services, in the township.”
Either way, Betz said the township board and residents were gearing up for a legal fight.
The Wabash Township Firefighters Association started a crowdsourcing effort to finance it. The site — www.gofundme.com/f/wabash-township-firefighters-assn-legal-fund — had $5,200 by the end of Tuesday night. Dwyer said the association had another $5,000 in donations for the cause.
In the meantime, if firefighters get cut, Valentin said the board was prepared to pay for fire runs made by surrounding townships and the West Lafayette Fire Department, if necessary.
Township assistance: $250, so far in 2021
A lot of the conflict between the board and the trustee has concentrated on the fire department. And right so.
But numbers starting to trickle out about township assistance – once called poor relief, administered by the trustee – had the board questioning Teising, too.
As of May 18, the latest figures available to the board for 2021 spending, Teising had distributed $250, with a check to Windsor West Apartments. In 2021, the township budgeted $19,205 for township assistance, which is there to help with rent, utility bills and other emergency situations for residents.
In 2020, during the height of the pandemic, Teising’s office distributed $4,297 – a year after churning out $37,282, according to township records.
Those numbers compare to a range of $11,593 to $25,392 in township assistance during the eight-year stint by the previous trustee, Republican Julia Byers. Teising, a Democrat, beat Byers for the four-year trustee position in 2018.
“In other words, we’re on pace to hand out less than $1,000 this year,” Valentin said. “It's an insult to the community we serve, and to the progressive voters that got her elected.”
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