Council weighs change to conflict-of-interest rules, approves stop-gap funding for fire department

  • Mayor Jim Bouley recognizes former city councilor Rob Werner for his 13 years as a city councilor at a meeting on March 14, 2022. Cassidy Jensen—Monitor staff

  • Mayor Jim Bouley recognizes former city councilor Rob Werner for his 13 years as a city councilor at a meeting on March 14, 2022. Cassidy Jensen—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 3/15/2022 4:46:56 PM
Modified: 3/15/2022 4:46:43 PM

Concord City Council is considering a change to the city’s ethics ordinance which would clarify when councilors and other officials are required to recuse themselves or leave the room during meetings and other council business.

Under the proposed version of the ordinance, Ward 5 Councilor Stacey Brown would not be allowed to speak, vote or in any way participate in public discussions related to city employee pay or compensation because her husband works for the Concord Police Department. She would also be required to leave the room during non-public strategy sessions related to collective bargaining for city employees. 

The council’s Rules Committee, chaired by Ward 9 Councilor Candace Bouchard, met twice in January to examine and clarify the ethics ordinance after a council meeting when Brown voted to let the city accept a gift from her employer, the Concord Public Library Foundation. Bouchard said that the committee had aimed to increase transparency and bolster the public’s trust in the council. 

Conservation Commission member Jeff Lewis spoke in opposition to a section of the new ordinance that would prevent members of public bodies from representing private third parties before that body. Lewis is a civil engineer who has represented his own clients in front of the Conservation Commission. 

He said that the language of the new ordinance would have unintended consequences, and might force people like him to leave boards. 

“We do put people on these land use boards who have professional experience,” Lewis said. “To me, this represents a reversal in procedure.”

Former Ward 2 City Councilor Allan Herschlag characterized the proposed changes as an attack on Councilor Brown in particular and listed a number of instances when he said Mayor Jim Bouley had failed to recuse himself while discussing council matters related to clients of Bouley’s lobbying firm.

After a discussion among councilors and clarifications from City Solicitor Jim Kennedy, the council approved a motion from Bouley to table the ordinance for 30 days to look more carefully at its language.

The council also voted to give the Concord Fire Department an extra $144,000 to fund overtime and fringe benefits. The department will move one ambulance from the Manor Fire Station to the Central Station to deal with increased call volume and increase the engine staffing at the Manor Fire Station from 3 to 4 people.

Fire Chief Sean Brown said that the past year was the busiest in the department’s history. “Whatever is driving these trends does not appear to be subsiding,” Brown said. Close to 70% of calls are for emergency medical services. The influx of calls has led to burnout and less training time for firefighters, Brown said.

Brown is retiring later this month after more than 25 years with the Concord Fire Department, which he said has been like his family in a city far from other relatives. In recent months, Brown said that he has seen firefighters and paramedics leave Concord Fire and the field of emergency services, something that is usually rare for younger staff.

At a January meeting, consultants presented a study that showed the department’s resources would need to be reshuffled to fully serve all of the city. One image showed that demand was much higher in the central area of Concord near downtown and in the Heights, with fewer calls near the station serving northern areas of Concord and Penacook.

Fire department call volume has increased 99.4% over the past 25 years, while minimum staffing has stayed the same since 2001, according to a department report. Meanwhile, the Concord Police Department has added about 18 officers between 2000 and 2020, increasing its ranks by 25%.

The extra funding will allow 20 Fire Department personnel to be on duty at all times, without adding any new positions.

State Rep. Safiya Wazir spoke in support of the extra funding for the Concord Fire Department, saying she was grateful that the department sent help quickly when she had a medical issue years ago.

“I hear stories of crisis from my constituents,” Wazir said. “This is a life or death issue for our community.”

Northfield-Tilton Firefighter Dan Leathers, a Concord resident, also spoke in favor of the new funding. “That’s unheard of in fire service to double your call volume over 27 years without a staff increase. It seems like an issue that’s been kicked down the road long enough.”

Other residents spoke against moving the ambulance to the Central Station, expressing concerns about the consequences of slower response times for those living in Penacook.

Penacook resident Wendy Fallansbee said she would not feel safe if the ambulance from the Manor Station, while Herschlag referred to it as reshuffling the deck chairs on the Titantic.

“Don’t put the residents of Penacook at greater risk,” Herschlag said. “Please don’t do this.”

The issue of Fire Department funding will likely reappear at the council’s budget hearings in the coming months. The council discussed the cost of adding a fourth ambulance, which would require an additional four people to staff the vehicle in the next fiscal year. City Manager Tom Aspell estimated that adding a fourth ambulance would represent a 2% tax rate increase.

Cassidy Jensen bio photo

Cassidy Jensen has been a reporter at the Monitor, covering the city of Concord and criminal justice, since July 2021. Previously, she was a fellow at the Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University, where she earned a master's degree. Her work has been published in Documented, THE CITY, Washington City Paper and Street Sense Media. When she's not at City Council meetings, you can find her hiking in the White Mountains.

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