Liset Márquez, Staff Writer
Created: 07/03/2012 01:17:40 PM PDT

MONTCLAIR – Addressing recent criticisms by the city’s firefighters union, City Council members on Monday night defended their stance toward public safety.

A report recently released by the city showed its sole paramedic squad was only deployed 15 percent of the time in the 2011-12 fiscal year due to budgetary issues.

The topic has become an issue in recent weeks after Councilman John Dutrey expressed concerns about the move and Firefighters Association officials questioned the council’s commitment to public safety.

“Through the years, we’ve heard this business that public safety has to have the first priority in the city,” Councilman Leonard Paulitz said.

“I’ve told my colleagues that we were elected by the people of Montclair to represent them, not the unions and not the employees.”

Paulitz said he has also heard from residents who are tired of the complaining by the Fire Department.

The councilman said it is his intention to represent all facets of the city and not just police and fire departments.

“We also have parks to maintain, we also have streets to maintain, we also have parks and recreation,” Paulitz said. “The community gets together, not through the police department or the fire, they get together through the holiday tree lighting, Halloween party and the fun day in June. All of that is important in the city, equally important.”

In the past, Montclair Firefighters Association president Chris Jackson has said, “for these council members, public safety is the evil…”

He criticized council members for not pressing the issue further and said their decision is having an impact on his department’s ability to provide service to residents.

The firefighters are asking for more staffing and that the third vehicle, an EMS squad, be staffed at all times.

Mayor Paul Eaton said he was upset with how the firefighters association has disregarded the council’s view on public safety.

Affirming the comments made by most of the others on the dais, Councilwoman Carolyn Raft said every member on the council does care about public safety, adding the city devotes almost 70 percent of its budget to fire and police.

“I think it’s really bad when some of our bargaining units try make us look bad just because they are upset because they don’t get their way all the time,” Raft said. “They should really start thinking twice about what they say.”

Raft was referring to the ongoing contract negotiations. Discord between city officials and the fire association is nothing new. For the past two years, the two sides have been unable to reach an agreement during contract negotiations. In both instances the council ultimately imposed a contract on the fire union.

The department has two firetrucks and the paramedic squad but in the last fiscal year, in an effort to keep overtime costs down, the paramedic vehicle was little used.

The fire chief adopted the practice that when two or more people called in sick, he was going to park the rescue squad.

Early last week, City Manager Edward Starr said the rescue squad will begin to be fully staffed on a 24-hour basis, but this occurred only after Dutrey raised his concerns.

At Monday’s council meeting, Dutrey thanked the city manager for providing the report but said he felt the amount of time the unit was used last year was unacceptable.

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