Split decision approves temporary joint fire chiefs in township

LA CROFT – Though the atmosphere was not as tense as at the board’s previous meeting, disagreement over the composition of Liverpool Township’s fire department remained firmly in place at the township trustees meeting last week.

In attendance were a much smaller group of people who questioned a decision to split the duties between potential fire chiefs Clifford Utt and Dave Ward for a probationary period. The move, announced by trustees Steve Betteridge, Keith Burke and then-acting trustee Robert George at the Dec. 23 meeting, had been met with vigorous opposition by firefighters in attendance, as well as former chief Mike Bahen.

Last week’s meeting was the first with Bahen taking his seat on the board. His position on the issue had not changed, though he chose not to debate the matter any further. When the measure came up for a vote, Bahen’s nay was defeated by the yes votes of Burke and Betteridge.

“They’re holding their ground,” Bahen said following the meeting. Otherwise, he chose not to comment.

Utt will now serve as chief at the LaCroft fire station while Ward directs firefighters at the Dixonville station.

Betteridge reiterated that the arrangement is not intended to be permanent and has been undertaken only to give trustees a chance to observe Utt and Ward in action. After a period of no longer than six months, he says a final decision will be made and a single fire chief named for the township.

“We asked the public to give us time and the firemen to give us time to make the proper decision,” Betteridge said. “We’re talking about saving lives and protecting the public, and the best thing we can do is take our time and make the right decision.”

Burke agreed with Betteridge, stating that the move was only motivated by a desire to find the best individual for the job. He also pointedly mentioned that after consulting with township legal advisor Andy Beech, trustees have been assured that there is no conflict with state law.

“My main concern is that we have the right person. I just want to make sure that we have a chief that will serve and protect our citizens of Liverpool Township,” he said.

Following the meeting, Betteridge expressed disappointment with what he believes is Bahen’s obssessing over the fire chief issue. “We have a whole township to run, not only a fire department. We have a lot of things going on, and all he seems to want to focus on is the fire department,” he said.

Betteridge also shared his suspicion that the people who came to the meeting with questions and concerns over the decision had been prompted to do so rather than attending of their own initiatives. “It seems like to me they were brought in by people that are related or friends of Mr. Bahen,” Betteridge said.

Conversely, Betteridge shared his admiration for Bahen’s career as a firefighter over the past 40 years. “For Bahen to run into a burning building in the middle of the night is more than I could ever ask anybody to do for the citizens of the township. I couldn’t do that.” He also said he looks forward to working with Bahen now as a colleague. “I think he’ll be a fine addition to the board. There’s a wealth of knowledge there I want to harness.”

In other business, trustees voted to sell one of the police department’s older cruisers, a 2008 Ford Explorer, which Betteridge says had become a drain on the budget due to excessively high operating costs. The proceeds will be used toward the future purchase of a more economical new cruiser.

During the reorganization portion of the meeting, Burke was voted to serve as board chairman, with Betteridge as co-chairman. Burke was selected as representative to the county Steering Committee and Betteridge to the Buckeye Water District board representative. Bahen was named to serve as liaison to the county health department for drug and alcohol testing of new township employees.

Robert George, who had sat on the board of trustees following the death of Karl “Butch” Kontnier last October, has been re-appointed to the township zoning board of appeals. Thelma Lockhart was named as the board alternate.

Despite the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, trustees will hold their next meeting as scheduled on Monday, Jan. 20 at 7 p.m.