On Wednesday, Decatur County volunteer firefighters David Israel and Andy Witkemper testified in a committee hearing at the Statehouse on a resolution authored by State Sen. Jean Leising (R-Oldenburg).
The resolution urged legislatures to formally study whether serving simultaneously as a volunteer firefighter and an elected official in a body that makes financial decisions regarding the same fire district constitutes a conflict of interest.
Israel and Witkemper currently serve in both capacities in Burney-Clay and Marion Townships, respectively. Under a law passed last year (House Bill 1005) that takes effect with the 2014 elections, both will be forced to step down from one of their two positions.
Both men decry the law as unfair. Isreal told the Daily News that the law unfairly singles out volunteer firefighters, restricting no other group of volunteers at any level or from within any agency from holding public office.
Leising’s resolution passed 8 to 0, meaning a legislative “Summer Study Committee” will likely be formed to consider the issue while the full legislature is out of session.
“Hopefully, we can ultimately get this law reversed during the 2014 legislative session,” Isreal said.
District 67 Representative Randy Frye (R-Greensburg), himself a retired firefighter, voted against HB1005.
He agreed with Isreal that the law unduly singles out volunteer firefighters, calling it “unbalanced” in that regard.
“Volunteer firefighters aren’t paid. They donate their time and, often, their own equipment,” Frye said. “In some places, they might receive a small amount of reimbursement, but it’s certainly nothing resembling a livable wage. That shouldn’t disqualify you from public office.”
Frye acknowledged that conflicts of interest involving government certainly do exist, but said this wasn’t one of them.
“This law goes too far,” he said. “It’s very difficult, in this day and age, to recruit good volunteer firefighters and this law will make it even tougher.”
Isreal said the law would affect some 500 volunteer firefighters throughout Indiana.
He and Frye both believe the law ultimately came about due to the bad behavior of one or two individuals and departments in Indiana.
“I think there was a department — I think somewhere near Vanderburgh County,” Frye said, “where they approved a $3 million firehouse. Obviously, that’s an excessive amount, and that supposedly came about because of the kind of conflict this law seeks to eliminate. It’s entirely unfair, though, to punish the entire state and all these small communities that depend on their volunteer fire departments for a few bad actors. This law seems punitive to me.”
Frye himself would jump at the chance to participate in a Summer Study Committee on the issue, but said that isn’t his call.
“This issue is near and dear to my heart; a committee like this would be right up my alley,” he said. “But it’s up to [House] Speaker [Brian] Bosma to make that appointment. If he calls me, I won’t hesitate to participate.”
Contact: Rob Cox at 812-663-3111 x7011