ATLANTIC CITY — City residents and firefighters approached City Council on Thursday night to express fears of their city being unsafe without multiple fire companies recently closed due to layoffs.
One by one, residents scolded the nine council members for allowing 30 firefighters to be laid off Sept. 30, an action that subsequently required Fire Chief Dennis Brooks to close two fire companies and potentially more.
"I speak as a resident who refuses to accept this situation," said Andrea Hall, who lives in Inlet Towers. "The people united will never, ever be defeated. And don't get it twisted, you have not seen the last of us yet."
Some firefighters and police officers attended City Council's last meeting two weeks ago and managed to publicly arrange a meeting between the unions and Mayor Lorenzo Langford. However, union leaders left the meeting the next day with no reported progress. Langford declined comment after that meeting.
This time, the fire union went a different route, arriving with a large presence of current and former firefighters and several city residents. Some in the standing-room-only crowd sported shirts that read, "Don't cut public safety in Atlantic City." Other residents attended the meeting with the help of members and friends of the fire union, who transported some seniors and disabled residents. Wednesday's showing is part of an ongoing public relations effort by the union that includes door-to-door visits.
Angelo DeMaio, the union's president, said his efforts are solely to inform residents of the changes in fire personnel and the potential delays they could cause to fire and medical emergencies.
"I'm not going to stop," DeMaio said. "Next meeting there's going to be 300 people here."
Public Safety Director Christine Petersen, who has become a target of criticism among the laid-off police and fire employees, accused the union of "manipulating" residents through fear. She also questioned why Brooks did not calm the residents.
"I'm very disappointed with this," she said.
DeMaio said Petersen's words are strong, inaccurate and inappropriate.
"If you look at this meeting on (public television) and you hear these people and how they spoke," he said, "that's not manipulation, that's passion."
City Council members have been noticeably quiet about the layoffs enacted by the administration this year. Councilman Frank Gilliam argued that the barrage of arguments from the audience was "counterproductive."
"When we come out and voice our differences and start pointing fingers, it's not productive," he said. "We need to actually sit down and try to compromise."
Gilliam's comments quickly turned into a debate between him and DeMaio.
"Don't tell me how you feel, show me!" DeMaio shouted from the crowd.
Wednesday's informal debate also included City Council's appointment of fire department employee Thomas Bell as fire official. DeMaio argued that the promotion of Bell did not follow state civil service rules, which require a formal test if there are more than three eligible candidates. DeMaio said there are 11.
Petersen countered by accusing DeMaio of opposing the appointment because he "doesn't like" the candidate. She also implied that Brooks opposed the appointment of Bell, who is black, for racial reasons. She noted Bell's race when speaking publicly about it. When asked about that and if she thought the controversy was race-related, she replied, "What else could it be?"
Brooks said he was offended by Petersen's comments Wednesday and insisted race had nothing to do with his disagreements about Bell. As for not publicly speaking before City Council, he said, "That's not my job."
"If I wasn't fire chief, I'd have a whole lot more to say," he added.
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