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Richard Corenthal Quoted in Lohud Journal News, “Information on Port Chester Volunteer Firefighters Proves Elusive”

Media Source: Lohud Journal News

Nearly a year after the village cut all eight of its paid firefighters, officials finally released documentation that drove that controversial decision — kind of.

When the village voted to go to an all-volunteer department last May, it claimed to have 300 volunteer firefighters, a number that was cited to justify the change.

Village officials and volunteer fire department leaders, accompanied by attorneys, finally shared documents said to back up that claim on Thursday, a day after a WVOX Radio discussion with lohud reporters detailing the search for the records.

 A story detailing the search was set to publish online the next day when Port Chester officials agreed to allow lohud reporters to view the documents.

But, the documents — which list volunteers’ hours of training, drills and classes — had the volunteers’ names redacted, and in some cases also redacted the date range and even the date that the report was created.

The state Court of Appeals ruled in 1980 that volunteer fire companies, despite being nonprofits, exist to provide an essential governmental function and are an agency subject to the Freedom of Information Law, according to Robert Freeman, executive director of the Committee on Open Government, the state office that oversees and advises on FOIL.

Freeman said records about volunteer firefighters should be treated in the same manner as records that relate to typical public employees, which are available to the public.

“Training records indicating that public employees have taken certain courses, have passed — are indeed qualified — have always been public and in my opinion they should be in this instance as well,” he said. “Isn’t it in the public interest to know whether there is adequate coverage? Of course, it is in the public interest to know that.”

Village Manager Chris Steers maintained that the fire department is “very active” and properly trained, but admitted a response “taking so long is not acceptable.” He cited fear of retaliation toward volunteers and the chiefs for the decision to withhold names and other identifying information.

The Journal News’ original request in May 2016 was for documents that identified the volunteers in the department and showed their training for fire responses. Port Chester has never accepted or denied that request in writing as FOIL requires in New York state, but an appeal is planned by lohud based on the village’s decision to redact the names.Mayor Dennis Pilla, a Democrat who’s leaving office this spring, called the delay “disturbing” and said that he was provided records that listed names of volunteers, if they were active or inactive and whether they were interior- or exterior-trained.

“I don’t understand why there’s been such a long delay,” Pilla said. “The optics don’t look good. It’s important that government is open and transparent, so it disturbs me a lot of this information has not been made available.”

Pilla is a part-time mayor in the village where day-to-day operations are handled by the village manager. It is the village clerk who handles requests under the Freedom of Information Law.

Records in ‘the public interest’

The village board of trustees voted to eliminate its paid firefighters on May 2 in a controversial cost-cutting measure estimated to have saved $800,000 in its first year. The Journal News/lohud and a Rye resident filed separate information requests within four days of the dissolution, asking the village to provide records including electronic copies of training forms to support the number of volunteers on staff.

Rye resident Tim Chittenden filed his information request May 4. Since then, Chittenden said he has emailed the village at least 20 times looking for an update. More recently, he was told the records weren’t available electronically and it would cost him between $1,250 and $2,500 to scan 5,000 to 10,000 pages worth of information that he’s asking for. On Thursday, he said he received redacted documents he didn’t believe satisfied his request.

The Journal News/lohud requested documents on May 6.

According to the freedom of information law, or FOIL, an entity has up to five days to acknowledge a request and up to 20 days to fulfill it, reject it or offer an explanation for a delay. After not receiving an answer within 20 business days, The Journal News/lohud sent a follow up email on June 27. Village Clerk David Thomas replied the same day saying the firefighters roster was being prepared and would be ready on July 18.

After not receiving the records on July 18, The Journal News sent an email on July 21 asking for an update. Thomas answered the same day saying the records were still being compiled. The village agreed to an in-person interview earlier this week, after several additional phone discussions about the status of the request.

A special meeting of the village board of trustees was called and held Wednesday to discuss the parameters of FOIL and concerns about releasing volunteer names after Port Chester officials discussed whether the documents should be made public with the state Committee on Open Government.

A debate about ‘active’

There are 156 interior-trained volunteers and 158 exterior-trained that are currently active, the village said. Fire Chief Michael DeVittorio said that the department has lost roughly 24 volunteers due to the fallout from the elimination of the paid firefighters, many of whom are union employees he said were pressured to break ties with the department.

What exactly “active” means has been called into question. It’s unclear if all the volunteers on that active list have had up-to-date training, still live nearby or have recently responded to a fire.

Fire Chief Michael DeVittorio said that all the volunteers meet or exceed training requirements, are physically capable of fighting fires and participate in emergency responses.

“Over the course of a year, yes,” he said.

The documents shared on Thursday included a “master attendance list” that showed 79,000 hours worth of training for volunteers. The names and date range were redacted. There were two training/drill reports generated by iamresponding.com. The first, with dates redacted, showed 11,600 hours in total. The second had no total hours, but showed classes dating back to 2007. A fourth document listed a class-completion report.

“What is the village trying to hide?” said Rich Corenthal, an attorney representing the eight paid firefighters who lost their jobs. “The records need to be verified for compliance with state requirements and cannot be done without the names.”

The union and village are entangled in an ongoing legal battle over whether their elimination of the paid positions was legal.