COPENHAGEN — A special village board meeting was held on Wednesday evening, the majority of which was an executive session to discuss “public safety.”
Before the executive session with supervisors from two of the three town fire districts — the towns of Denmark and Pinckney — under contract with the Copenhagen Volunteer Fire Department and village attorney Candace Randall, Mayor Mark A. Souva gave a prepared statement about the ongoing challenges with the fire department that prompted the special meeting.
“In the last two weeks, our board has come to the realization that our working relationship with the fire department is in jeopardy,” Mr. Souva said. “It is clear after two state comptroller reports in five years and two state PESH (Public Employee Safety and Health Bureau) violation reports in three years, coupled with the continued lack of accounting and their actions in the last few weeks, that we now have to have a conversation about public safety and contracts with our town stakeholders.”
Among the village’s accusations against the fire department, Mr. Souva listed “inadequate” financial reporting “to provide the accountability for taxpayer/contract monies given to the fire department”; questions about the title of vehicles after a “recent change at the DMV” without village authorization; an ongoing investigation into the department allegedly taking municipal water from the town of Watson without authorization; and not answering the village’s requests for information.
While the nearly two-hour executive session took place, a number of fire department members and village residents gathered outside the village hall to discuss their concerns about rumors circulating that village officials are planning to dissolve the fire department.
A firefighter for decades, former drill team member and current department vice president, Terence M. Williams Sr. disputed the information given by the mayor.
Mr. Williams said the department has provided accounting documentation but not in the village’s preferred format which he said is “about 32 pages long,” and that only vehicle registrations have been changed by the department, not the titles, because the department owns all of the trucks so the titles have always been in the department’s name.
Mr. Williams and other department members also said that the water used was from the town of Martinsburg, not Watson, and that the person who gave the department the water had the proper authorization to do so. The water was used to fill another person’s swimming pool.
Although the department and its legal counsel have asked to have a meeting with the village board and its lawyer Mr. Williams said the request was either denied by Ms. Randall or met with no response.
“The first time was because it didn’t come from the chief,” Mr. Williams said.
Ms. Randall confirmed after the meeting that the department had made the request and that it was refused by the village. She also said the village has made it clear to the department that all official communication should come from the chief directly.
When asked why a member of the village board does not attend the fire department’s monthly meetings to improve communications, Ms. Randall claimed that in the past Mr. Souva and at least one town supervisor from a fire district were verbally assaulted at fire department meetings and neither will go back.
Mr. Souva, who is an emergency medical technician and was an interior firefighter with the department, recently resigned and is considered “exempted” because he will no longer be an active firefighter.
The village board, which is down to four members because of another resignation — that of Gerald Snyder who also serves on the fire department board where he still maintains his position — hopes to find a resolution to the issues to avoid losing the fire department.
The tension between the department and the village board has been brewing since 2019 when the board voted to shut down the drill team’s participation in firematics competitions, but it has grown since Mr. Souva took over the village and the board started to demand more accountability from the department and the addressing of safety issues.
Mr. Williams claimed members of the village board have personal issues with the department and are not acting fairly.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described Terence M. Williams's roles with the Copenhagen Fire Department. He is a former drill team member and the current vice president. This updated story also now indicates that Mr. Williams said only registrations were legally changed for the department vehicles in question, not the titles, because the department, not the village, owns the vehicles and the titles have always been in the department’s name.