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Wabash Trustee Jennifer Teising interview: ‘This is a created crisis’
Teising says if the township board wants to go to court over firefighter layoffs, she’s prepared: ‘They’re not my boss.’ But she’s convinced that won’t solve long-term funding problems in fire dept.
I have other great stories waiting to get out of my notebook, I swear. But when it comes to Wabash Township and the standoff between Trustee Jennifer Teising, the township board and the fire department, the hits just keep coming …
Jennifer Teising was on the phone Wednesday afternoon, a surprise caller after laying low in recent weeks that have had her indicted on theft charges, found her the subject of a Statehouse meeting and had her cast as the decided villain in a local saga about to end with full-time township firefighters losing their jobs next Tuesday.
A day after skipping a meeting called to sort out what firefighters and township board members portrayed as a public safety crisis of her making, Teising was on the line to deal with questions she’d missed during a second, seething session in as many weeks.
Teising had been in her office next door that night but didn’t join the meeting. She contended it was being held without suitable notice, per Indiana open door law. And she said she figured she knew the upshot of what was bound to be a “hostile” environment, given the blowback on her decision to chop paid, full-time firefighting positions.
Sum it up in the words of board member David Tate, who joined a chorus of people Tuesday night calling on Teising to pull back on firefighter layoffs in the name of public safety: “This is all on our trustee.”
Township board members – while pleading with her, browbeating her and cajoling her to give up and resign – left things here Tuesday night: Either Teising agrees on a new contract that saves the firefighters’ jobs and gives the department more freedom to manage itself; or the board would go with what they called the “nuclear option,” creating its own emergency service to go around Teising. Whether that last desperate maneuver was even legal in an Indiana system that gives trustees, not advisory boards, power to oversee township fire departments, board members admitted they weren’t sure.
Either way, a vote was coming Friday evening during another special meeting, township board member Brendan Betz said. Even if that was just a way to force a court battle to slow Teising’s plans.
There was a lot going on: You can read a more complete account of that meeting here. More coverage and background available in the Based in Lafayette archives, too.
Now on the phone, Teising got to the point a day after all that happened:
• If people think she’s resigning, she’s not.
“This is a created crisis that they have made by not being honest, by misrepresenting my intentions, for sure,” Teising said. “They intend to put pressure on me to resign. That is never going to happen.”
• If people think she’s going to pull back on plans to let go three, full-time firefighters, given what she called the township’s inability to secure tax funding beyond 2021, they’re mistaken.
A contract proposed by the Wabash Township Firefighters Association is being reviewed, she said, but it’s not coming in time for the June 29 layoff date she gave firefighters. The ball’s in motion on benefit cuts and the rest, she said.
“The board starting this conversation a week ago? That’s not an accurate representation, when I gave the firefighters notice four months ago,” Teising said. “I mean, I’m sure no one’s surprised. This is not something that just happened yesterday. I’ve been talking about this for two years.”
• If township board members follow through with a “nuclear option” to take over the fire department or, if nothing else, force a court battle, Teising said she’s prepared for that.
“I would absolutely appreciate a place where we could go where members of the board and myself would testify in a court of law, that if we do not tell the truth, we could be prosecuted for perjury,” Teising said. “Yes, I am prepared for that, 100 percent. … I got nothing but the truth.”
• And if people think this is all her fault, well …
“I don’t think they’re being intellectually honest with themselves or with the people of Wabash Township,” Teising said. “They’re just not. And that’s too bad.”
The rest are bits and pieces from the call Wednesday afternoon.
Will she be there for Friday night’s township board meeting to answer yes or no on the firefighters’ contract?
Teising wouldn’t commit. On Wednesday, she sent township board members emails asking whether they’d meet in advance to assure she’d have a chance to speak about issues with the fire department. She said she didn’t see the point if she was going to be stifled or interrupted, as she thought she had been when she appeared via Zoom during a contentious June 15 meeting – her first appearance since she’d finalized layoff notices to firefighters in early June. (Tate said a township lawyer advised them to decline a private meeting in advance.)
Teising said she hopes the conversation can pivot toward the future of fire department funding. But she contends that requires some history, including the pushback for a series of three yearly “emergency loans” that would beef up the fire department, starting with an extra $440,000 this year from an additional tax. She advocated for that, with the ultimate goal of getting the county to create a fire district to give more options to raise revenue to expand the fire department. That first year emergency loan survived a remonstrance. Since then, Wabash Township hasn’t had buy-in for the following years of the tax. Teising put it on firefighters and citizens to get the signatures needed to petition county commissioners for a fire district.
How much of that blame fell to her inability to rally people around the cause, Teising wasn’t willing to say.
“The conversation that I hope we pivot to is that there’s a portion of the township that wants to go with a fire district and is willing to pay the taxes to keep those firefighters, and there’s a portion that doesn’t,” Teising said. “I can understand why people reasonably might come to either one of those options. … So, let’s talk about, what are we doing?”
She said if residents opt for a fire district, “I’d be ready to bring (the firefighters) back.”
Have too many bridges been burned to get that done at this point?
When township board members called for Teising’s resignation six months ago, one reason they gave was that she had lost the confidence of the fire department. Deputy Fire Chief Jim Lewis said volunteers are drifting from the department that covers unincorporated West Lafayette, dropping from between 35 and 40 at the start of 2019 to 20 now, Lewis said.
Those calls reverberated in recent public hearings and in yard signs popping up around the township. If Teising had allies those nights, they weren’t standing up.
This week, Teising talked about secret meetings, plots and suspected firehouse coups aimed to undermine or oust her. She said she resented township board members who thought they could tell her what to do.
“They're not my boss,” Teising said. “They're not in charge of managing the township.
“I don't think we need to repair bridges to be able to do our jobs,” Teising said. “The board has a job. They have roles and responsibilities. The trustee has roles and responsibilities. Everybody needs to stay within their roles and responsibilities and do the job that they were elected to do.”
How about working with residents, skeptical, angry and calling for her to step down during recent hearings?
“I don't care if the conversation involves me or not,” Teising said. “If people wanted to meet on their own, if they want to meet with me, if they want to use township resources, if they want to use the township building in support of that, I’m fine with that. I still have the (fire district) petition if they want to do their own thing. … I'm happy to work with people if they want to work on this issue. And if they don't want to work on it, then that's fine, too. We just have to be honest about what we’re really facing.”
Is she ready to bring in part-time firefighters to replace the full-time firefighters, as she’d suggested, by June 30?
Short answer: No.
“That hasn’t gone anywhere,” Teising said. “I have been trying to meet with people for four months to come up with a transition plan. Nobody wants to talk to me about it.”
Teising rejected an offer from the township board to move $500,000 from a firefighting fund meant for equipment to one designated for operations, including salaries. Board members contended that move would have kept the firefighters on staff through 2023.
Even then, would it have made more sense, with money in the budget through 2021, to keep the full-time firefighters on station through the year?
“Like I’ve said, we’ll be right back in the same situation,” Teising said. “That’s like ignoring the bigger problem. I’m not going to do that.”
Meanwhile, Lewis predicted an additional five minutes for fire calls and medical runs once paid firefighters aren’t staffing the station and the job shifts to volunteers responding from their homes.
Did accusations that she lived outside the township – including some time out of state – contribute to the situation?
Township board members called on her to resign, in part, because they claimed she lived outside the township, which isn’t allowed by state law. Since then, she’s been charged with 20 counts of theft for collecting paychecks from June 2020 to March 2021, when it’s claimed she lived somewhere outside West Lafayette and Wabash Township. (A photographer assigned by the J&C found her staying in an RV park in Florida in December. Charges claim she lived in other places during that time, too.)
Teising said she disputes that she pulled up stakes in Wabash Township.
“The only statement that I will make is that I have maintained my residence as is required by Indiana state law the entire time of my tenure as trustee,” Teising said. She said that’s all her lawyer will allow her to say on that.
She’s scheduled for a July 29 trial, though her attorney indicated during an initial hearing in May that she intended to ask a judge to move the case to another county. That request hadn’t been filed, as of this week.
What about township books that suggest she’s been stingy with township assistance, or outright ignoring that duty?
Township board members this week accused Teising of shirking township assistance requests for utility bills, rent and other emergencies. As of May 18, the latest figures available to the board, 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 spending $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 said the numbers over the past two years were misleading, because the township had worked with federal, COVID-relief programs that dealt with rental assistance, allowing the township to save its township assistance money. (She didn’t immediately provide documentation of that.) She said township money budgeted for those years would roll into 2021 and 2022, when COVID-related eviction moratoriums lift.
Does she regret stopping for that drink Monday night at Brokerage?
After Teising left the township offices on Klondike Road – without stopping by the meeting, a move that ticked off those on metal folding chairs in the fire station bays – it didn’t take long for snapshots to surface at the meeting of Teising on a deck chair, having a drink outside Brokerage Brewing Co. in West Lafayette. (Nikos Frazier, a J&C photographer, sneaked out to get his own photo, just to make sure we all weren’t getting punked by an outdated photo.)
By Wednesday afternoon, the West Lafayette brewery, maybe sensing some residual blowback aimed at Teising for lounging while the fire department grasped for last-minute reprieves, posted a frame from Frazier’s camera on its Facebook account. The caption:
“In case you had any doubts, Brokerage welcomes everyone.”
(The brewery, which features an antique fire truck out front, followed up with a post that offered free appetizers for firefighters.)
Did Teising have any regrets about the optics of that moment?
“If you're referring to something that is happening on social media, I am unaware of that completely and have not engaged in that, at all,” Teising said. “What I do on my personal time I don’t think is relevant. … No, I do not regret going anywhere in my personal time. That's my business. And I'm going to keep doing it every single day until I die.”
Why did she close the township office?
Last week, Teising closed the township office, citing – according to a sign on the Klondike Road door – a reduction in staff “and difficulty getting reliable internet coverage.” She moved her office hours, set for Tuesday through Thursday, to a private residence on Knox Drive in West Lafayette. Teising said she did that after an office administrator gave her notice unexpectedly and left.
“I expect to reopen the office when this situation comes down, and people are not behaving in the way that they're behaving right now,” Teising said.
OK, let’s play that out: With everything going on, is she considering running for re-election?
The calls for her to resign keep piling up: township board members, Tippecanoe County Party chairwoman Jacque Chosnek, former party chairwoman Heather Maddox, state Sen. Ron Alting, two West Lafayette City Council members, township firefighters and a chorus of residents at the past two public hearings in the past two weeks.
She says that’s not happening. But what about running for re-election in November 2022?
“Maybe,” Teising said. “I’m certainly not going to stop fighting bad actors.”
IF YOU GO: The Wabash Township Advisory Board will meet at 6 p.m. Friday at the Wabash Township Fire Station, 2899 Klondike Road. Board members are scheduled to consider a resolution they say could allow them to take over the fire department. Here’s a look at it.
Here’s also a link to a 2009 attorney general’s opinion that says trustees, not boards, have authority in Indiana to operate emergency services.
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