NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The General Government Committee is recommending a proposed ordinance creating a fire hydrant division be filed, saying it raised a number of complicated issues and legalities, and was best addressed by the policies and procedures of the departments involved.
"We're not voting on hydrants tonight, we're voting on whether to put in a new department in order to maintain hydrants," said member Wayne Wilkinson. "I see no need for that. We have a plan from the mayor which I fully support. When he brings it to council I'll certainly vote on it. Let's just fix the problem."
Mayor Thomas Bernard, just hours before the meeting, gave an update on the completed audit of the hydrant system and proposed a borrowing of $300,000 to have the current 55 or so nonfunctioning hydrants replaced.
The ordinance was introduced by City Councilor Jason LaForest at the Feb. 23 City Council meeting in response to a number of nonfunctioning fire hydrants at two recent fires. The city has been slowly addressing the aged hydrant infrastructure for a decade but the lost minutes in searching for functioning hydrants to battle the two structure fires greatly alarmed the community.
LaForest submitted the ordinance after the Public Safety and Public Services committees heard from Fire Chief Stephen Meranti, Public Services Commissioner Timothy Lescarbeau, water foreman Colin Todd and highway foreman Paul Markland.
The ordinance would have created a fire hydrant division, called for hydrants to be inspected twice a year, required coordination with several departments including the City Council on reporting, plans, inspections, etc., and the publication of such plans on the city website. It also required the mayor to include hydrant replacement plan in the annual six-year capital improvement plan.
LaForest, who has declared a run for mayor, said he had used practices already in place, the two hearings, language from other communities and the city code to develop the ordinance.
Chairwoman Lisa Blackmer and member Jessica Sweeney said they had been unable to find any similar language and Blackmer said when she queried LaForest for his sources he had emailed "a simple search on eCode 360 and Google will pull up anything the committee may need."
"I was disappointed that I couldn't just go to what he looked at so that I can look at the sources," she said.
Sweeney said LaForest did give her some recommendations. "It was Peabody and, I'd have to look up the email, but it's not really relevant, only because when I went and looked at all of the ordinances for those communities, I did not find examples of this," she said. "So I, too, stumbled to find anything to compare this ordinance with."
Instead of writing a new ordinance from scratch without any precedents, Sweeney thought it would be faster to support the mayor's current action.
The opinion of the city solicitor was that the existing streets and facilities division is already responsible for all street, water and sewer systems and their maintenance and repair, as listed in the city code.
"The specific operational details of this nature would be more appropriately attributed in the department policy, and in addition, there may be public safety concerns to consider before requiring publication of hydrant and water infrastructure plans document on the city website," according to the solicitor. It also was not clear which records would be referred to emergency dispatch and whether two hours to do so was even feasible.
As to requiring the mayor to have a plan, the solicitor wrote, "in my opinion, the mayor cannot be directed to perform a discretionary function such as this, although it could be included as a recommendation."
After doing her research on the ordinance, Blackmer said, "it fails to take into account the collective bargaining agreements, it may trigger impact bargaining, and has language that is inconsistent with the rest of the ordinances. I want solutions to this problem."
Councilor Keith Bona, who attended the meeting, said he was concerned with the twice a year inspection process, noting the current system of flushing and inspection of hydrants is only done once a year.
"A lot of times they start the flushing in spring, but then they're told to hold off because flushing gets into overtime. And they're told to hold until we get into the next budget [July 1] so that they can then withdraw the money from there, but they ... typically would not flush in the fall because the reservoirs are low," he said. "Are you going to inspect twice in spring and summer? ... Also inspecting would not make sense in the winter because opening up the hydrants during freezing weather is not advised."
Bona agreed that it was more about policy and procedure and that the responses from the solicitor were good.
Councilor Peter Oleskiewicz felt that residents didn't understand at the last meeting when the council had voted 7-2 to send the ordinance to committee that it was about proper procedure.
"When the paper was originally presented, to me it kind of gave the residents of North Adams that seven councilors were not in favor of putting in fire hydrants," he said, adding he'd addressed that in comments to chat rooms "just so people can see that this is a very important issue to every single one of us. And I tried to explain how things were done and it wasn't being done right."
Marilyn Miller Honig of Stamford, Vt., who created the Berkshire Helping Hands group after a devastating fire on Houghton Street two years ago, thanked the committee for making this issue a priority.
"My question is how do you ensure that history doesn't repeat itself with the fire hydrants [if it is not in ordinance]?" she asked.
Blackmer responded that putting it in ordinance didn't necessarily mean it would be done, and that it really depended on the people who were elected and who worked in the city to make sure any procedure or ordinance was followed through. "I guess it's up to everybody, all of us to stay vigilant and really get a handle on this," she said.
"I think it's important to also remember that us councilors also live in houses near these fire hydrants," said Sweeney. "We also carry the same fears and concerns around the issue that presented itself to the folks who have had to experience what they have experienced in the most recent fires.
"They're our friends, they're people that we care about and, if we don't know them, they are people that we represent."
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Say goodbye to this burst of spring — Mother Nature prefers a little chaos in her work.
The warm temperatures of Wednesday are about to plummet as a snowstorm — yes a snowstorm — bears down on the Berkshires.
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Accuweather is forecasting up to 10 inches with rain all day Thursday and temperatures dipping into the 40s. Thursday night will temperatures dropping into the 30s.
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