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Williams: Tyndall situation ‘created a wound’

(Nov. 19, 2015) A week after the settlement in the two-year-old, $8 million Zackery Tyndall harassment lawsuit against the Berlin Fire Company was reported, Berlin Mayor Gee Williams spoke about the relationship between the company and the town.
In a phone interview on Monday, Williams said he hoped the conclusion of the case would give the fire company “an opportunity to evaluate all that has happened.”
 “I hope they took a good, fair look at how did this happen, what happened and how will they come back and become a part of 21st century Berlin,” Williams said. “The community is moving forward, the community is positive, the community wants them to be successful, but the community also has values that are important to our quality of life.”
Williams said the situation with Tyndall “created a wound” between the town and the fire company, but that “the wound is beginning to heal.”
“I hope, quite frankly, that it heals quickly, but it’s more important that it heals thoughtfully so that the entire community ends up in a better place,” Williams said. “The community’s values were certainly validated through this process.”
The rift between the company and the town in 2012 became severe when the company announced it was taking back control of its paid employees. The town, in response, announced it was cutting all funding for the organization, citing its refusal to abide by town government’s personnel policies.
In the following year, the fire company wrote a letter requesting $567,000 for fiscal year 2013-2014 expenses, and another in $567,000 to cover the funding withheld during the previous fiscal period.
The Town Council, meanwhile, voted to transfer just $200,000 from its contingency fund to the department.
On Monday, Williams went onto say the situation was larger than a disagreement between the company and the town government.
“It’s about the values of the community and what’s important to our community,” Williams said. “I think that has been made exceedingly clear throughout this process, and I look forward to the day, in the not-too-distant future, that the Berlin Fire Company embraces this most unique, most caring, most open minded and tolerant community, and that they can know all the benefits from becoming more a part of Berlin rather than apart from it.
“There’s a big difference between being a part of your community and being isolated in a fortress,” Williams added. “I don’t know how all that came about, but I just think that everyone is anxious, and me as much as anyone, for a much better and brighter relationship, and that needs to be based on mutual respect.”
The relationship between the town and fire company seemed to take small steps forward during the budget process this year, and the Town Council approved a $373,000 funding request from the company.
Williams admitted he and the councilmembers noticed an improvement in the communications about finances from the company during that process, but said the organization still seemed to be lagging behind and using outdated practices.
“As new auditing standards have come about, I think the fire company needs to have a good discussion among themselves about how the financial planning is done,” Williams said. “Certainly anybody who cares to go through the tedious process of going through all this will clearly determine what our auditors have told us, that they operate primarily on a cash basis.
“If you’re a small operation – a mom and pop – that’s a wonderful thing, but we’re talking millions of dollars here,” Williams added. “The town of Berlin would literally come to its knees if we had to do all of our operations strictly on cash.”
He also said the level of funding now in place should be enough to maintain and sustain the fire company, if it adopts “even a 20th century approach to capitalization and purchasing equipment.”
Williams said he was not interested in seeing the fire company reincorporate with the town, but would rather see the relationship evolve on a more organic level.
“I’d like to just see it get caught up to the times we’re living in,” he said. “I would love to see the Berlin Fire Company not just as firefighters – not just as personnel – that’s not the issue. If they wish to be supported by the citizens of Berlin then I think they need to embrace the values of our community, which are not bad. In fact, they’re a great example for any small American town.
“I really look forward to that time, because when that happens I think so many issues will just drift away, and I think they’ll find the overall community, including our private, charitable donations, will increase substantially,” Williams added. “But it begins with the fire company – not at Town Hall.”
David Fitzgerald, president of the Berlin Fire Company, did not return requests for an interview for this story.