Good in theory: Landis signals return to former public service administrative roles

Published 12:07 am Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Landis took steps that will impact how the town administers its public safety services during a special-called meeting on Monday.

By a unanimous decision, the Landis Board of Aldermen agreed to disband the joint director of public safety position and revert the town services to two standalone departments for fire and police.

“We tried this for two years,” Mayor Meredith Bare-Smith said. “We have never been fully public safety. (For instance), when we do budget, their budgets are not merged.”

It brings to an end the period in which a single person held the position. Previously, Zachary Lechette served as public safety director. Currently, interim director Kevin Young is filling the role. He explained that he had not received a lot of pushback about the setup from his personnel.

“The consistency from both departments is that they are OK either way,” Young said. “Is that 100% honest? Is that really how they feel?”

Young indicated that elements within the current situation could negatively impact the public safety director’s ability to perform the duties of the office.

“It’s too much on one person as far as training hours, meetings and certifications that require annual renewal,” Young said.

The interim director also pointed out that rank-and-file members of the department, whether they admit to it or not, are being stretched thin. There are currently four positions available at the police department. There is one open position at the fire department, but one application has been submitted. Young lamented that the policy had been ineffective with the department’s makeup.

“To do it correctly would require a lot more staff,” Young said. “If you have one police officer working, and there is a fire, you can’t pull that one officer off duty to tend to a fire. It doesn’t work as far as that goes. You don’t get a return on your money. If that person does a police job 95% of the time, you have (fire) turnout gear sitting there going to waste that someone else could be utilizing.”

There is also the matter of paying overtime for cross-department shift pickups. According to Young, the enthusiasm for crossing between departments is naturally sparse.

“Police officers are police officers,” Young said. “Firefighters are firefighters. Ninety percent don’t want to be both. You’d have employees that did not stay.”

Young mentioned that he sees it to Landis’ advantage to have so many other fire departments around.

“When we have a structural response, we are getting a lot of mutual aid on first response,” Young said. “That one additional (police) officer is not going to make or break us. God forbid, thankfully, this doesn’t happen every day. There will come a time when there is a fire and a police incident. If there is an active shooter and a fire, where does the chief go?”

Young boiled it down like the adage in football — if you have two quarterbacks, you don’t have one quarterback.

“You’re splitting duties,” Young said. “I don’t think you get 100%, and neither department has a full-time chief.”

The cost of finding the right fit

Newly-appointed interim town manager Phil Conrad remarked that having a public safety director is akin to putting one’s eggs into a single basket.

“Part of tonight’s discussion revolves around not just dollars and cents but sort of the pieces of human capital,” Conrad said. “With the (potential) departure of a director, we are out two positions, so there is that structural issue with the discussion.”

Conrad was hesitant to dismiss the concept of a joint public safety position but explained that current economic conditions could make finding a full-time director difficult.

“In practice, it could be a potential asset to the town, but it is a very competitive employment climate,” Conrad said. “I think about the ability, if it remains a single department, to adequately recruit a public safety director. Your last director had a Ph.D. That’s not critical, but it speaks to the uniqueness of that position.”

Lechette had more than 20 years of fire experience and had served on the Landis Police Department since 2009.

Comments from the board

Alderman Tony Corriher lamented that the policy never took off within the departments.

“I am satisfied that it can work if the people are willing to make it work,” Corriher said. “If you are dead set against it working, then it is never going to work.”

Mayor Pro Tem Ashley Stewart summed up the issue as a crossroads decision.

“We are at a divide,” Stewart said. “We can continue with our perseverance or divert and go back to what some might consider the standard or norm?”

After the vote, it appears that Landis is set to go back to that norm.