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Wabash Trustee Jennifer Teising finds no allies, as firefighters on brink of layoffs
Wabash Township Trustee Jennifer Teising faced public fire Tuesday. Theme: She should quit; firefighters scheduled to be laid off should stick around. Teising reax: 'They're so stupid'
If allies were out there Tuesday night for Wabash Township Trustee Jennifer Teising, either in the extra seats hauled into the engine bays at the township fire station or on a Zoom call so full people were being directed to a YouTube feed, they weren’t letting on.
Three hours into the first public meeting since Teising told the township’s paid firefighters they’d be out of work at the end of June – and a full half-hour after Teising had checked out, logging off her Zoom feed as she and township board members sniped at each other – residents and volunteer firefighters were still coming at the trustee.
In Teising’s ongoing feud with board members, firefighters and just about anyone else about township business, her most recent plan to replace the township’s three paid firefighters for 8 a.m.-to-5 p.m. part-timers was the latest in a slow-rolling study of brinksmanship just west of West Lafayette.
Residents, one after another, stared into the Zoom screen and told Teising they’d had enough.
The audience venting upshot, two-fold: Teising should quit. Firefighters scheduled to be laid off should stick around.
“It’s pretty evident you’ve lost the faith of the board, your party, the firefighters and a large swath of the community,” River Karner, a resident, said during hours of public comment. “Could you explain why you’re not willing to step down?”
Teising, who claimed that recent months have been filled with “a lot of lies in Wabash Township,” said she was going to serve the four-year term she won as a Democrat in 2018.
“I’m going to do the job I signed up to do,” Teising said. “Until the end.”
The three township advisory board members – Brendan Betz, Angel Valentin and David Tate – openly and frequently spoke about running out the clock on Teising. They didn’t seem to care whether that came through the courts, where Teising is facing multiple counts of theft for collecting a paycheck while allegedly living out of the township; in the November 2022 elections; or simply taking their advice, given early this year, to resign.
(That chiding, plus a steady stream of challenges from residents who seemed to have been waiting their turn for months, prompted Teising at one point to mutter into an unmuted mic: “They’re so stupid.”)
Still, Tuesday night, board members tossed Teising a lifeline.
With enough money in the budget to cover the township’s three paid firefighters through 2021, the board members crafted a resolution to move $500,000 from a firefighting fund designed for large equipment needs to one that could be used for operations, including firefighter salaries, in 2022.
The maneuver had an air desperation to it, starting with the fact that the township would be down in a fund typically used to replace trucks and other firefighting gear. And board members fessed up to that, knowing it would be down to Teising to use the money as intended.
“It can work, we’re sure,” Betz said after the meeting. “If she’ll take it.”
Teising said Tuesday night that she’d look at it.
(She said she had some doubts, because she’d looked at a similar option two years ago and had been steered away by state officials who said it wasn’t allowed. Teising instead advocated for series of three “emergency loans” that would beef up the fire department, starting with an extra $440,000 this year from an additional tax. She’s since said she can’t get buy-in for subsequent years.)
Whether it would be enough to stave off firefighter layoffs before June 29? That was still up in the air.
Meanwhile, Wabash Township fire runs continue to grow in a growing unincorporated area that serves 30,000 residents. Deputy Fire Chief Jim Lewis said the department answered 556 calls in 2021, as of Tuesday. That compared to 532 at this point in 2020.
The department has lost volunteer firefighters, dropping from between 35 and 40 at the start of 2019 to 20 now, Lewis said. Lewis said 15 of those 20 were what he considered active with the department. Teising is still dealing with fallout from firing former Chief Ed Ward just before Christmas 2020. (Ward was the second chief Teising let go since starting in 2019.)
During Tuesday night’s meeting, two firefighters left to respond to a medical call that rang out on radios in the station.
The board held up the meeting for a moment. The crowd mumbled and watched a two-man crew take off.
“That right there is why,” Diane Lehman said, as a siren trailed down Klondike Road. “If you can imagine that being your loved one and your tax money going to a quick response those folks just left this very important meeting for. And they’re waiting. And waiting. And waiting for someone to respond. That was my mom last week. And I thank God that the volunteers came and picked her up and took her to the hospital, because she would be dead if not for the volunteers.”
The evening was filled with questions about how decisions could affect response times and threaten fire insurance bills, discussions about whether firefighters had been reduced to pawns in a political game – “Please, please, please,” Mike Dwyer, Wabash Township Firefighter Association president, said, “don’t put these guys in the middle” – and questions about why Teising was tuning in remotely.
“Where are you, really? Florida?” came a catcall from the crowd at one point.
Teising didn’t respond to that. Though, it played into accusations that Teising sold her West Lafayette home in June 2020 and then collected 20 biweekly paychecks while she lived somewhere else. (A photographer with one of the Journal & Courier’s sister papers spotted her at a Florida campground site with a travel-trailer in December as questions lingered about where she was. Calls for her to resign followed from her board and eventually from her party chairwoman.)
She faces a July 29 trial for those charges – ones her attorney told a Tippecanoe County judge she plans to try to get heard in another county.
As the hearing went on, things were testy and often snarky, with Teising speaking over public comments, and residents and board members reciprocating in kind. Several times, board member Angel Valentin escalated his shouting, “Ms. Teising! Ms. Teising!” in attempts to stop her from talking.
“Angel,” Teising said from her Zoom screen, “if you mute me one more time, I’m leaving.”
Finally, Teising told Valentin she’d had enough.
“I will be there at the next meeting,” Teising swore, before leaving mid-meeting.
Those in the Wabash Township Fire Station bay broke into applause.
Valentin simply muttered: “Jesus Christ.”
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