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Judge: MD Firefighters Can Campaign for Ambulance Fees

Judge: MD Firefighters Can Campaign for Ambulance Fees

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November 02, 2010

ROCKVILLE, Md. – A Montgomery County judge Monday dismissed a lawsuit seeking to stop county firefighters from campaigning for ambulance fees.

Without a ‘Yes’ vote on ‘Question A’ — the ballot measure that would institute ambulance fees — Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett says he’ll have to cut more than 80 firefighter positions and take 11 ambulances out of service.

Leggett has put the county’s paid firefighters to work lobbying in support of the measure. Uniformed firefighters, at times with equipment, have handed out literature and shown up on the clock at shopping and government centers in what the county calls “an education effort” and what opponents call “electioneering.”

In making his ruling, Circuit Court Judge Robert A. Greenberg said the plaintiffs — volunteer firefighters — failed to file in a timely manner.

The judge also said citizens could be as outraged that the county is “crying poverty” while spending taxpayers’ money to argue its case.

John Bentivoglio — an attorney representing the volunteers who filed the suit — calls the county’s tactics “coercive.”

“Telling your boss, who cuts your paycheck, that you’re not going to get on board his political campaign would be very risky for someone,” Bentivoglio says.

Bentivoglio, who also is a volunteer firefighter, says Leggett has plenty of other resources to get his message out.

“He shouldn’t hijack the career fire and rescue personnel, while they’re on duty and in uniform, to engage in political campaigns.”

But Marc Hansen, acting county attorney, says there’s nothing wrong with using career firefighters. Hansen says the ambulance fees are a matter of county policy.

“If firefighters are asked to implement county policy, and defend county policy, it is appropriate to ask them to do that,” regardless of their own opinions on the issues, he says.

Prior to the ruling Monday, Montgomery County Fire Chief Richard Bowers appeared at one of a series of news conferences in support of the fees.

Pamela Boe, who is a volunteer paramedic, says supporting the fees is a ‘no-brainer’ for her. But she says she’s gotten some pushback after publishing an editorial.

“I received some pressure … in the form of e-mails and phone calls,” she says. “Apparently I was breaking ranks.”

Bowers says the term “fees” isn’t really accurate. He says the measure would create a “reimbursement” that will generate $14 million a year and $170 million over a 10-year period.

Standing in front of two fire engines with a placard that read “VOTE FOR QUESTION A” between them, Capt. Adam Pegler commented in support of the fees. Pegler said to taxpayers, “You’re paying a lot of money in taxes, and this is an effort to recover some of that.”

Opponents of the fees say they’re bad policy, but Bowers says it’s a critical funding issue and the fees won’t hit taxpayers in the wallet. He also says there are no guarantees insurance premiums will rise if the fees are approved.

“No county resident would ever get a bill,” Bowers says.

Before issuing his ruling, Judge Greenberg said it was ‘ironic’ that during a time of tight budgets people on county business, using county equipment, would be campaigning for an effort designed to keep them on the job.

“The public could be puzzled,” Greenberg said.

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