Firefighters ask judge for injunction to stop trustee's layoffs next week
Embattled Trustee Jennifer Teising was sued Friday by township firefighters. The same day, her township board moved to take control of the fire department, saying she's a danger to public safety
Last week, during a closed-door meeting at the Indiana Statehouse, the options seemed slim for Wabash Township Advisory Board members and firefighters, as they tried to stop Township Trustee from going ahead with layoffs for the township’s three, full-time firefighters by the end of June.
“I told them, ‘You might want to get some good lawyers,’” state Sen. Ron Alting, a Lafayette Republican, said after the Monday meeting in Indianapolis. “Because right now, it’s like the trustee holds all the cards in Indiana law. I’m not a lawyer. But a good lawyer can maybe figure out a way.”
On Friday, the firefighters and the township board took him up on his advice, in a play with two acts.
Act 1 …
Late Friday afternoon, the Wabash Township Fire Department Association filed a civil suit in Tippecanoe Circuit Court, asking for a preliminary injunction that would stop Teising from letting go the department’s three paid firefighters -- Joe Wade, Travis Merkel and Drew Hampton – on June 29. That’s next Tuesday.
The lawsuit claims 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 maintaining an antagonistic relationship with firefighters and township board members. (Teising already faces 20 counts of theft for collecting paychecks while living outside the township, a violation of state law. She’s scheduled for a late-July trial on those criminal charges.)
The firefighter lawsuit’s claims mirror many of those aimed at Teising since late in 2020, when she started feuding with the fire department, fired then-Chief Ed Ward and wound up on the losing end of a vote of no confidence by the three-member township board.
Those accusations and calls for Teising’s resignation have grown louder in the past two months. In that time, Teising has insisted that without public support for a fire district – a mechanism that would turn control of the department over to Tippecanoe County commissioners and allow for more taxing flexibility, in the process – she would need to roll forward with a plan to lay off the paid firefighting staff, hire part-timers to replace them and lean on a volunteer force of roughly 20 – along with mutual response agreements from neighboring departments – to pick up the slack.
She’s pressed ahead, despite an emergency loan, financed by a special tax that raised $440,000, is still in play specifically to pay firefighters hired less than two years ago.
The civil suit filed Friday summed up the frustrated reaction across the township since then:
“Teising is on the cusp of failing to provide the residents of Wabash Township fire protection and has made a habit of terminating firefighters and chiefs, failing to make proper payments on needed equipment, and on track to leaving the relationship between the position of trustee, the department and the community in ruins. Members of the department have walked out during her meetings and has issued a vote of ‘no confidence’ in Teising as township trustee. In retaliation for the department’s acts, Teising has notified members of the department that she intends to terminate their employment, for no good reason …”
As of Friday afternoon, Circuit Judge Sean Persin hadn’t ruled on the motion.
On Friday, Teising said she had not seen the lawsuit. She said that if it was meant to pressure her to stop the layoff, “that wasn’t happening.” If it was meant to get her to resign, Teising said, “that’s not happening, either.”
Mike Dwyer, president of the Wabash Township Fire Association, declined to comment, leaving details to the filing and to the lawyers.
Earlier this week, the firefighters’ association started a crowdfunding effort to raise cash for legal fights, saying they wanted to protect response times and the reputation of a department that is the busiest among Tippecanoe County’s townships. (This year, so far, Wabash Township Fire Department has had 574 runs, about 75 percent to 80 percent are medical issues, Deputy Chief Jim Lewis said Friday.) As of Friday evening, the GoFundMe site had raised $6,810. Dwyer said this week that the association had another $5,000 in donations to take on Teising.
David Tate, a township board member, said the hope was that the judge would act before the firefighters’ last day.
"I’m both elated and sad today,” Tate said. “Elated in that we’ve finally got some momentum to hopefully put the skids to the trustee's totally absurd decision to fire the three firefighters and sad for all involved that it had to come to this."
Cue Act 2 …
A few hours later, the township advisory board set up what they called a “nuclear option” – one they say will bring another legal challenge.
With Teising sitting off to the side in the fire station bays, the township board agreed to create its own emergency response department that would bypass the trustee. In essence, the firefighting operation, staff and equipment would transfer wholesale to the township board, funded by existing firefighting funds. It also would maintain fire department staffing as it is now, meaning no layoffs next week.
The resolution is built on the premise that there is enough money in the budget to cover the township’s three paid firefighters through 2021, plus a maneuver the board made a week ago that cleared the way to move $500,000 from a firefighting fund designed for large equipment needs to one that could be used for operations, including firefighter salaries, through 2023. That, board members contend, would give the township two years to figure out a long-term solution to fund and even expand the paid firefighter ranks.
Teising rejected that move, saying it just kicked the problem down the road.
“It’s dramatic in theory,” Brendan Betz, a township board member, said about the potential shift in who has the final say over the fire department.
He said it was one option township officials and firefighters from Tippecanoe County presented to Alting, state Reps. Chris Campbell and Sheila Klinker, and representatives from the attorney general’s office and the Indiana Township Association. Betz said no one could give a firm answer whether the measure would hold up.
“It’s unprecedented,” Betz said. “But unprecedented doesn’t mean it’s not legal. I can’t say for sure it’s legal. That said, we’d be ready to work through the legal arguments and convince a judge why we’re going this way.”
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. This week, Hershman said the issue had to do with a township in Jasper County.
Greg Zoeller, Indiana attorney general at the time, 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.”
Representatives from Attorney General Todd Rokita’s office did not immediate respond to questions Friday about how his office saw that question.
The resolution came with a stipulation Friday: The township board would rescind the move if Teising either approved a new contract with the fire department or back away from the pending layoffs.
“We’ve seen a change of heart in the trustee on other occasions,” Betz said. “I’d hope this would be one of those times. If not, then we’re ready for what comes next.”
Teising hadn’t been in the fire station bays for boisterous meetings in the past two weeks. For one, the first since she’d set a date for the layoffs, the trustee appeared via Zoom. The next one, on Tuesday, she skipped, claiming the township board had improperly advertised it, according to open meeting laws. (She spent part of that meeting in her office, before leaving and being spotted having a drink outside a West Lafayette brewery as the board wrangled details about the fire department’s fate.)
So, public comment turned personal against Teising, who sat at the side of the room.
Residents chided her for not taking a more active role in looking at fire department funding, saying she’d left it to residents to petition to change. Lewis argued that Teising was stuck on the fire district concept, when other middle ground options that kept control of the fire department with the township were available in state law.
Teising remained calm – calmer, at least, than when she and board members argued and spoke over one another during her appearance on Zoom. But she was adamant that the fire district idea was the best way to go. She said she was willing to work on other options, if she could get buy-in from residents, the board and firefighters. But she said she wasn’t sure people were willing to take her calls on that, at this point. (A smattering of applause followed that.)
As she walked to the back parking lot of the fire station after the meeting, Teising was asked about the board’s attempt to take control of the fire department.
“That?” Teising said on her way out. “I don’t even understand that. That’ll have to go to a lawyer, and they’ll have to tell me whether or not that works.”
As for the rest?
“I heard nothing new here tonight,” Teising said. “Nothing that would have changed how my decisions have gone.”
As Teising waited for a ride – “I didn’t want people messing with my car out here, like they did the other night,” she said – Kelsey Hampton, wife of firefighter Drew Hampton, introduced herself to the trustee. Hampton said she hoped Teising would reconsider and that her husband’s job was secure.
Teising told her: “It’s been eliminated. Nothing has changed.”
“It’s going to be eliminated,” Hampton said.
“No, it is eliminated,” Teising said. “It’s done. I’ve already sent him notice. So … have a great night.”
Hampton answered: “I hope you can sleep well.”
As Teising left, Hampton went back inside to go over the exchange with Kayla Merkel, the wife of Travis Merkel, another firefighter about to be laid off.
“I just want her to know that this is affecting our lives,” Hampton said. “Our home lives, our professional lives. And the township, more than anything. These people deserve to be protected the way they expect. They don’t deserve what she’s doing to them.”
IF YOU GO: The Wabash Township Advisory Board will meet at 6 p.m. Tuesday, June 29, at the Wabash Township Fire Station, 2899 Klondike Road. Board members are scheduled to finalize a resolution they say could allow them to take over the fire department, if Trustee Jennifer Teising fails to reach a contract with firefighters or follows through on plans to lay of the township’s three, full-time firefighters.
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