Like smoldering ash that could ignite at any moment, last night's Westfield Town Council meeting erupted with heated exchanges between town council members and members of the public over fire department manpower staffing issues and the continued concerns over safety at the Central Ave. HAWK pedestrian light.
Michael Sawicki, president of the Westfield firefighters union, approached the microphone and asked permission to invite New Jersey Firefighter's Mutual Benevolent Association president Bill Lavin to speak on behalf of Westfield's bravest. Lavin painted a picture of decreased staffing issues across New Jersey causing safety concerns for citizens. While acknowledging decreased tax revenue and budget cuts that have forced many fire departments to be understaffed, cutting public safety will ultimately jeopardize public safety.
After each speaker, including Cumberland St. resident Ellen DiIorio who lost "everything" in a September fire that destroyed her home, the audience erupted in applause causing some council members to become noticeably upset with the obvious support. The DiIorio fire was initially fought from the inside of the residence by Plainfield firefighters arriving on scene approximately 15 minutes after Westfield's arrival on scene. Due to a lack of manpwer, Westfield firefighters could not enter the structure fire to fight the fire's origin in the basement until mutual aid responded.
Coucilwoman JoAnn Neylan who chairs the town council's Public Safety Committee apologized for the DiIorio's loss but didn't stop there. Instead of stopping after letting the public know that the town council is doing everything they can, with limited resources, Neylan carried on reminding Mrs. DiIorio that she is also a taxpayer and lives in the same town and shares the same risk as the DiIorio's and all Westfield residents. The only difference, Neylan's "roll of the dice" with regards to a fire destroying her house and life as she knows it, has not come up "Snake Eyes" or "Crapped Out." Neylan remarked that "We're (town council) doing the best job we can." She further stated, "If we could afford more fireman, we would."
These comments, from a councilwoman that remarked during her 2011 campaign for re-election that the fire department's ladder truck is used for "scenic aerial views" when questioned why the department's ladder truck had sat in the fire house during several fires during 2011 including the Ferarro's fire. Manpower staffing shortages did not allow the truck to be dispatched to the Ferarro's fire and it appears Neylan attempted to minimize the necessity of the ladder truck on scene at some other 2011 structure fires, where aerial rescues from heights greater than an extension ladders reach and /or fire fighting measures, including dousing a structure fire from above, would necessitate the aerial ladders presence on scene.
With wasteful spending throughout the municipality's other departments including a police department Emergency Services Unit duplicating Union County's Emergency Response Team, or the Department of Public Works employing a superintendent when the town engineer could assume the supervisory responsibilities, town officials will cry the poverty excuse without cutting unnecessary spending.
After Tim Brennan addressed the town council about his concerns, not only as a Westfield firefighter but also as a third generation town resident, Mayor Skibitsky defended the town's position by asking Brennan if he would be willing to re-open contract negotiations between the town and the firefighter's union. Brennan deferred to his union reps which prompted Councilman Jim Foerst to ask if Brennan, as a town resident, would be willing to re-open contract negotiations. Brennan's response was "Yes." Foerst put Brennan in an awkward position attempting to shift the focus onto the actions of the firefighters union. Foerst's diversion is nothing new as he follows in the footsteps of Mayor Skibitsky using tactics that attack the speaker. Knowing full well that a firefighter, let alone resident, can't individually re-negotiate a contract outside his own union representation, Foerst's hypothetical question was, as Councilwoman Neylan likes to frequently say, "Disingenuous."
While Councilwoman Neylan had tried to make excuses for the reduced staffing at the fire department, resident Maria Carluccio was shaking her head in response to another resident's (seated next to Carluccio) whispered comments. That prompted Councilwoman Neylan to lash out at Carluccio telling her to "Stop shaking her head." Ironically, Neylan shook her head in the same fashion as Carluccio (from left to right) as Brennan spoke during his allotted ten minutes at the microphone during open public comments. Hypocritical?
Resident John Blake's time at the microphone admonishing the town council's belief that the reduction in staffing at the fire department has not jeopardized public safety resulted in a response from Councilman Arena. Arena warned the audience that "Mr. Blake has an agenda." TFoTM asks Councilman Arena what that agenda might be? When ordering his pizza from Ferarro's, does Councilman Arena have an agenda?
The night would not be complete without some comments made concerning the HAWK pedestrian crossing on Central Ave. Once again, when confronted with the fact that numerous experts had originally placed the pedestrian crossing at the intersection of Central Ave. and Clover St., Mayor Skibitsky remained silent. Skibitsky's only response when appearing agitated was to ask, "What is your point" or "Not true."
Supporting the opinion that Mayor Skibitsky has lied to the public about who influenced the current location of the mid-block HAWK pedestrian crossing, several experts were referenced......Skibitsky remained silent.
In 1990, Westfield Councilman Kenneth MacRitchie submitted an 8-page memorandum to the Town Council's Public Safety Committee recommending a traffic light at the intersection of Central & Clover. (TFoTM is in the process of obtaining the memorandum.)
A pre-2002 Signal Warrant Analysis that was done to determine whether or not a traffic light was necessary at the intersection of Central & Clover concluded that the state granted permission to go forward with a traffic signal." (See 10/17/02 Westfield Leader story titled "Safety on Central Ave. Worries Residents.)
Again, in October 2002, Westfield Police Chief Bernard Tracy had stated that a light controlled intersection is the safest place for pedestrian crossing. (See 10/17/02 Westfield Leader "Safety on Central Ave Worries Area Residents.")
In May 2005, Westfield consulting traffic safety engineering expert Gordon Meth proposed a pedestrian traffic light at Central and Clover that would only be activated by pedestrians. (See 5/12/05 Westfield Leader. Also documented in Meth's report dated July 26, 2005, titled "Traffic Calming and Safety Improvements For (8) Eight Locations."
A 2007 Signal Warrant Analysis done by the engineering firm Louis Berger Group, concluded that a pedestrian signal was warranted at the intersection of Central & Clover.
A 2009 report titled "New Traffic Control for an Old Pedestrian Crossing Safety Problem" co-authored by Dr. Richard Nasi, the inventor of the HAWK pedestrian signal, illustrates that a pedestrian crossing is safer at an intersection than at mid-block.
A 2011 report issued by the Pennoni Associates, consulting engineering experts for Union County, recommended the pedestrian crossing be moved back to the intersection of Central & Clover.
Most disturbing and evidence that contradicts Mayor Skibitsky's claim that he and the Town Council relied on expert opinion is the following which was obtained from the October 18, 2007 edition of the Westfield Leader newspaper.
.........Ms. Neylan said all hot spot suggestions and eventual implementations have come with "the input of the neighborhood." she said the Citizen's Traffic Safety Advisory Committee sees to it that "there's no chance of something coming into the neighborhood that's not desirable by the people who live in the area."
Mayor Skibitsky has stated numerous times that public opinion will not determine matters of public safety and that he relied on expert opinions. However, over the course of the past 19 months, when asked about how the location of the HAWK pedestrian crossing got moved from the intersection of Central & Clover to mid-block, Skibitsky has stated, out of one side of his mouth, "We relied on the experts." When presented with the same question phrased differently, and in defense of the hand-picked Citizens Traffic Safety Advisory Committee, Skibitsky states that residents were against a light at the corner. That response appears to be emanating from the other side of Skibitsky's mouth.
Mayor Skibitsky is at the point of no return on this issue and that is why the HAWK light will not be moved under the Skibitsky regime. Arrogance and the inability to admit a mistake are a politician's worst attributes.
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