MANNINGS — Citing difficulties in being able to bring about reforms, the newly elected president of the Blue Ridge Mountain Volunteer Fire Company’s board of directors stepped down from the job at a board meeting last week after serving just three months on the job.
In an letter posted to the Shannondale and Beyond community forum, Ed Burns said obstructionism by board members and a clannish relationship among members made it impossible to implement new policies at the company.
“Members of the same family make up a majority of the board mothers, sons, husbands, wives, cousins, second cousins. They’re all board members, family members of the person who has been accused of embezzling the $72,000 from the fire company. It’s just a bad, bad relationship situation where there are no outside people who can effect change within the fire company,” said Burns, “who had asked board members to read his resignation latter aloud, but was turned down.”
“I looked at the situation as a challenge that I felt, if approached correctly, I could create a positive outcome. It saddens me to report to you today that I have not met my expectations and that I do not see any chance of any change occurring within this fire company unless drastic and (severe) measures are employed,” Burns wrote in his letter to the board and public.
Burns said the way the bylaws of the organization are written, the president is a figurehead, and the board of directors controls the operation of the fire company.
“In that capacity they run the fire company so that, if you don’t do what they want you to do, they simply fire you. That’s why we’ve gone through so many good presidents in the last couple of years.”
“I tried to initiate some basic changes in how the funds were operated and handled, and at every turn that I went, I was met with opposition or inaction,” Burns said.
Emergency Medical Services Chief Leonard Lehman also stepped down. He declined to comment on his decision.
Fire Chief Earl Cogle replaces Burns as president.
Cogle made efforts to gather the board of directors for comment on the situation, but was unable to do so by press time.
Burns said he put forth a litany of reform efforts which he says the board has blocked.
“I could never get any cooperation from anyone in the company to review forged signatures on the checks from the embezzlement suit,” Burns said.
“It was a longstanding problem there that mail was not getting to the right person and that bills were not being paid because the mail was not getting to the treasurer,” Burns said. “Until February, when the treasurer quit, I didn’t have access to the mail – they denied me access to the mail. So I never knew what bills were coming in, what bills were not being paid and what communication between different agencies were occurring. Insurance premiums that were due were never transmitted to the treasurer. Forms that needed to be filled out for the workman’s compensation program were not being processed properly. I tried the best that I could to get the folks that were (supposed to) do this to do it, and nobody seemed to want to get it done, which cost the company quite a bit of money,” Burns said. “The letter (the workers compensation insurers) sent to the company said that it could result in a 200 percent increase in their premiums.”
“To my knowledge, it had not been done as of the day that I resigned,” Burns said.
Burns said he believes direct intervention by local and state regulatory agencies will be necessary to enact the reforms he wanted to introduce.
“There are a lot of different actors that can get on the stage, and the willingness of those actors to get involved will determine the overall outcome,” Burns said. “I believe that the only way that this fire company can be turned around is if the agencies that are connected with this fire company become directly involved and take a hand in reorganizing the fire company.”
Burns says he does not take issue with Company Five’s volunteer firefighters and EMTs, but rather with the board of directors of the fire company.
“The people that do the work, the responders that respond to the fire calls, the responders that respond to the EMS calls are good folks. They basically know their job. They do an adequate job on the fire side and a very, very good job on the EMS side,” Burns said.
Burns also argues that instituting restructuring and reform of Company 5 will help bolster volunteer recruitment.
“I’ve been told by many, many people, both on the mountain and down in the valley, that as soon as this situation is solved the number of volunteers that will be willing to return to Company 5 will be tremendous,” Burns said.