City firefighters next week will vote on whether they want to establish a merit commission to govern their department.
City officials need a majority of them — or at least 20, if everyone votes — to establish the ordinance that would put the commission’s structure in place.
“We’ve chewed on this for two months,” said city council president Tim Salters during a meeting between the firefighters and the council’s Public Safety Committee Wednesday at City Hall, 201 Vigo St.
“I think we’re ready to move forward.”
Talks between the committee and city firefighters began in October and have been somewhat slow to progress.
If implemented, a merit commission comprised of five members would be established to oversee the hiring, promotions and disciplinary actions of the city’s fire department. Currently, promotions and hirings are largely up to administrators, i.e. the elected mayor, who appoints the fire chief during his or her tenure.
The commission would be comprised of one representative selected by Mayor Joe Yochum, a former fire chief himself, two representatives by the city council and two selected by the firefighters union.
The Vincennes Police Department has been governed in a similar fashion for years, but many firefighters have been hesitant.
Enough of them are on board now, however, that the committee feels comfortable moving forward with a vote.
The group agreed Wednesday to allow ballots to be cast over a period of several days; voting will begin on Monday and continue through April 12.
Firefighters will need to go to the city clerk treasurer’s office, located adjacent to City Hall, between the hours of 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. to cast their ballots.
“I’m just not a fan of doing it all in one day,” Salters said, to which the firefighters nodded in agreement. “I think that puts too much pressure on you guys.
“This way, I think most everyone would certainly have a day off in there to vote. You’ll have a whole week to get it done.”
The council, too, very intentionally started the voting on a Monday and extended it through the following Monday, thereby separating it into two work weeks should someone be on vacation.
It also gives firefighters a few days to spread the word before voting officially gets underway on Monday.
The paper ballots — which Salters said are an easy “check yes or no” style — will be collected by the clerk-treasurer, the firefighter’s name checked off a list and the votes kept secret until they are counted at 4 p.m. on April 12, just before the city council meeting at 6 p.m. that same day.
If a majority of firefighters are in favor of moving forward, the city council will then vote on the establishment of the ordinance that same night.
It would then likely be made final two weeks later when the council approves it on second and third readings.
If all of this happens, the various entities would make their appointments this summer and the commission could potentially be having regular meetings by the end of the year.
And everyone — for perhaps the first time since talks began last fall — seemed to be on board. The committee last week changed the proposed ordinance to reflect two of firefighters’ biggest concerns — they wanted department retirees to be eligible to serve as merit commissioners, and they wanted language added to prohibit nepotism, ensuring an active firefighter’s family member could not serve.
Wednesday’s meeting wrapped up in only about 15 minutes.
“Ok, so this is going quick, good,” Salters said with a chuckle. “That’s a little different than some of our other meetings.”
There are currently 38 firefighters; 20 of them would need to vote in favor of a merit commission to move the process forward.
Committee members did, however, clarify that it would be a majority of those who cast votes; there could be some who choose not to get involved at all.
“So if only 12 vote, we need seven to say, ‘Yes,’ ” said committee member Brian Grove. “We just need a majority of voters, not firefighters.”
Should firefighters vote the establishment of a merit commission down, then Salters would simply pull the ordinance from the agenda on April 12, and talks cease.
And it’s happened before.
In 2017, talks between the firefighter’s union and city officials turned sour, eventually resulting in the idea being dropped entirely after members of the union voted it down.
“So if there’s a no vote — there’s no issue — and it’s off the table,” Salters said.