BUCKHANNON — The Buckhannon fire and police departments entertained a full house on a dreary January evening Thursday for the first in what will be a series of town-hall style meetings about improving public safety in the city.
The Public Safety Town Hall was held at 6 p.m. in the Public Safety Complex and sprang from discussions at Buckhannon City Council meetings about two main issues — problems with what Mayor David McCauley has called “exorbitant” firefighter and police overtime and the issue of whether or not the city needs a part-time public safety director.
At the beginning of Thursday’s meeting, however, it became apparent that the meeting was not designed to be a debate among council members about those two issues, but rather an open dialogue among community members about a range of topics pertaining to public safety in the community.
McCauley made that clear at the outset of the meeting.
“This is not going to be a meeting where city council members are going to do all the talking,” the mayor said. “We’re going to be out here mingling and mixing it up and learning and establishing what I think is going to be a very positive dialogue as we get better with everything we do as a city — but of course, tonight’s session is focused on police and firefighters.”
McCauley said councilman CJ Rylands — who he called “the lead facilitator” of the meeting — would make a few brief comments.
Rylands explained that police and firefighters would lead guided tours of their respective departments. Following that, attendees would split into five break-out groups to discuss four main issues: the steps necessary to develop a county and city emergency plan, the identification of public expectations of emergency services and vice versa, what people avoid or fear in the community, and opportunities for police and fire departments to connect with the community. The facilitators from the five groups would then present the major issues that arose out of small group discussions to the larger group, and prior to leaving citizens would have the opportunity to prioritize public safety issues brought up by placing a blue (important) or red (not as important) sticker next to that topic, where it was written.
“So in preparation for this meeting, I have over the last couple of weeks gone into the fire department and spoke to some of the members there and the police department and have had several conversations,” Rylands remarked, “and what came out of that, for me, is that the council or the community has never really asked them specifically what to do, or about the design of their operations plan.”
Following the walking tour during break-out group discussions, some of the more prevalent issues that came up included, but were not limited to: the need for more positive press; the need for involvement, education, interest, understanding and support from the city government; the need to educate the public on where to go or what to do in emergency situations; the need for the city and county to work together to come up with an emergency management plan for the city; the need for the city to have its own emergency committee to coordinate a plan; the need for police officers to be more approachable; the need for more opportunities through which police officers and firefighters could connect with the community; and the need to focus more on attracting and recruiting volunteers.
Other issues that arose included the observation that the city government had not participated in emergency exercises and the need to develop a process for city council to identify concerns and share those privately with firefighters and police officers for them to address. One group observed that first responder overtime was “a unique situation,” and another said a part-time public safety director position was unnecessary and that time and money could be better spent elsewhere.
At the meeting’s conclusion, McCauley assured attendees that the dialogue would be ongoing.
“I think what we do is we get this stuff written up and we process it,” the mayor said. “We’ll get the word out for another meeting soon. We’ve got a lot of other things on our table right now that we need to take up, too. Let’s process it and digest it for a month or two and we’ll do this again when the weather breaks, possibly in March.”
As attendees dispersed after ranking the most pressing issues that arose during the meeting, McCauley told The Record Delta he believed the meeting had been a productive one.
“Anytime you bring out, on a January evening, the quantity and cross-section of folks out, it [the meeting] ought to be deemed a success,” the mayor said. “We’ve been preaching about inclusivity, and through this everyone feels that they have a place at the table.”
McCauley added that he and other council members had “very purposely” attempted to “deflate any negativity” or possible conflict around the two hot topics of first responder overtime and whether or not city council should hire a public safety director.
McCauley said one important thing that came out of the meeting was that it’s very apparent that the city needs to develop and publicize an emergency management plan.
“To say that there is a full-blown city/county emergency management plan, we don’t have that,” McCauley said. “And we’re still having the overtime problem.”
Fire chief Jim Townsend said he was happy about the turnout for the meeting.
“I was encouraged by how many people were there,” Townsend said Friday. “The format seemed to be productive.”
Police chief Matt Gregory characterized the event as “a very good meeting.”
“A lot of good dialogue came out of it,” Gregory said. “I figured there would be a number of folks there. There was a lot of good conversation on community policing and community programs for the police and fire departments, and I think there were a lot of good ideas shared. I think maybe there needs to be a continuation along those topics.”