PRESS EDITORIAL: Enough! Grafton firefight must end

It was as though a tiny birthday cake candle set a village on fire.

That’s not really what happened, of course, but it’s an apt analogy for the bitter and enduring controversy that involves the Grafton Fire Department and Village Board member Susan Meinecke.

It started with something almost as simple and innocent as that birthday candle—a wedding photo.

The picture of newlyweds David and Teri Liss, she in a brilliant white wedding dress and shawl, he in a classy black suit and tie, was taken after their wedding on Dec. 31, 2017 in front of a Grafton Fire Department truck parked at the fire station. It was an appropriate setting for the photo, which was posted on Facebook. Both the bride, an EMT, and the groom, a firefighter, are volunteer members of the GFD. (David Liss is also a village trustee.)

This is the stuff of which civic pride is built. Could any Graftonite not feel good about a pair of citizens who are so proud of their service to the community fire department that they chose to make it the theme of their wedding photos?

Well, as a matter of fact, yes, Trustee Meinecke for one. She complained to the village administrator about the photos, something about liability.

Let’s see, the couple could risk their lives in the line of duty, but it was having their pictures taken next to a fire truck that exposed the village to a lawsuit. It’s not surprising that fire department members considered this nonsense an affront.

Ironically, fallout from the photo dust-up did result in a lawsuit, and it was Meinecke who brought the suit. In February, she sued Fire Chief William Rice and Village Administrator Jesse Thyes, alleging that they conspired to undermine her re-election bid in 2018 and that they improperly refused to produce emails she demanded.

The pot of resentment between the trustee and the fire department was further stirred when Meinecke’s husband John, as a Village Board candidate (in the April election he received the lowest vote total of the five candidates for three board positions), called for firing the fire department’s three full-time paid employees and outsourcing firefighting services to a contractor.

The pot then boiled over when about 30 volunteer firefighters attended the March 18 Village Board meeting and one of their spokesmen criticized the Meineckes for “trying to destroy” the fire department.

Susan Meinecke’s reaction suggests that she prefers handing out criticism, as she has generously done to other village officials, to receiving it. She complained to Village President Jim Brunnquell in an email that she was “shocked at the level of unprofessional behavior” displayed by the firefighters at the meeting and demanded to know “what are the consequences for their actions?”

The village attorney answered with an explanation pointing out what should have been obvious: “The individuals were speaking on a matter of public concern—the safety of village residents—and in their capacity as private citizens.”

A discordant voice, expressing dissent that encourages challenging the status quo, is often a good thing in local government, and Meinecke has every right to be outspoken in her elected office in ways that she believes are beneficial to the village. But in practice her confrontational tactics have been a costly distraction without constructive effect. One of their likely negative effects is to hamper the village’s efforts to deal with a looming fire department manpower shortage.

Sustaining volunteer fire department membership is a problem in almost every community, but particularly for municipalities like Grafton in which sprawling commercial and residential development has dramatically increased fire protection needs. The GFD is coping by adding some paid firefighting and EMS personnel and working hard at volunteer recruitment.

The latter is made more difficult by what one Grafton volunteer firefighter alluded to when he posed this question at a Village Board meeting: “Who wants to volunteer for a department whose chief is getting sued by a village trustee for simply doing his job?”

Making a fuss over volunteer fire department members posing with a fire truck in wedding pictures doesn’t help either.

This controversy needs to end. But even as it continues at an angry level it has one positive aspect: The performance of the Grafton Fire Department is not an issue. The well trained men and women of this mainly volunteer outfit are as committed to their mission as ever and carry it out in exemplary fashion.

 

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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
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