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Her High Hopes

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As firefighters looked on from the back of the council chambers, Paul and Weiner faced their first crisis: Whether to honor a campaign pledge to require competitive bidding on major contracts and purchases, such as spending $130,000 on two used ambulances. Buying the ambulances through the normal process would take several weeks -- too long, warned the ambulance representative, swearing they were "hot commodities" that would be lost to another buyer if Davie didn't act immediately.

Surely, good-government purists might expect, the new leaders of Davie -- mindful of their "competitive bid" position -- would wait, would explain to the firefighters that principle was more important than self-interest.

Oops. Suddenly the "reformers" discovered an "emergency."
Under Weiner's prodding the town attorney determined the ambulances could be purchased immediately if Town Administrator Robert F. Flatley declared an emergency affecting "life, health, property, or the public peace" -- a legal provision meant to be used during such crises as hurricanes, floods, and riots.

More mindful of election results than legalities, Flatley, although a former Catholic priest, displayed the integrity of a Brooklyn precinct captain, decreeing, "For the sake of 'public peace' I think we could declare an 'emergency.'"

After that, Weiner moved to waive competitive bidding, and reformer Paul, adopting of the age-old logic of political expediency, chimed in: "The fact that they're hot commodities, that satisfies the aspect of the bidding process."

All this brought objections of "being railroaded" from council member Kathy Cox, who won reelection with the campaign help of Stern. To Paul and Weiner, Cox declared, "I know the firefighters are anxious to take over stations, but I think you're rushing forward and bringing on a lot of costs.... We all know the firefighters helped get you elected. I consider firefighters a special-interest group."

As Cox defended the existing ambulance contract, Stern, attired in blue jacket and turquoise blouse, while not exactly pulling puppet strings, nodded her head in vigorous approval. Behind her the firefighters chorus on the back row cheered on Paul, who, holding up a copy of the town's contract with American Medical, responded to Cox by saying, "It says the firefighters could take over the stations when ready."

"Give it to her, Judy," sang the firefighters. "Give it to her."

In an office interview several weeks later, Paul was asked about her sudden campaign tilt toward the firefighters and acknowledged, "A lot of my detractors thought that was a last-minute thing that happened."

By then a visitor had noted that on Paul's council desk stood a model of an old horse-drawn fire engine, and on the wall hung a large painting of nineteenth-century firefighters battling a barn fire by drawing water from a pond, as the fire horses watch. Was this a blatant attempt to curry favor with both the horse people and the firefighters?

Pointing to another portrait, a commanding presence in a turn-of-the-century firefighter's uniform, Paul said it was her grandfather, Chief Charles Weinberg, who started the fire department in Ridgefield Park, New Jersey. "I've always been around firefighters," she announced. She remembered that, as a girl in Teaneck, she'd watch firefighters stand on the corner and raise money for the Jerry Lewis muscular dystrophy telethon. One year she got her own bucket, collected $32, and, with pride, handed it over to the firefighters.

"People have always trusted firefighters," Paul said. "They're our lifeline. They save us if our house catches fire or we have a heart attack. They help a child stung by a bee, a cat caught in a tree. Ooh, I made a poem." Given this background her support of the firefighters' EMS takeover was natural, she said. "When there's a safety and fire threat, the public needs to be in control, so the government can be accountable."

Why then did it take her so long during the campaign to back the firefighters?

"I started out with fluff," she confessed, with her first fliers addressing nothing more than what a nice person she was. "I was told by certain persons to stay away from EMS.... But I took notes as I walked door to door, and that's what people were talking to me about. I decided if I'm the candidate of the people I have to address the issues they're concerned about."

Those who favor Davie firefighters handling EMS argue that the firefighters are closer to the people of the town, care more about them, so will be more responsive in an emergency. They're also more accountable to the public than a private contractor. In mid-February, in an article in Davie's weekly paper, the Community News, Paul took this position and came out in support of the firefighters. She later commented, "I was moving into the fray as far as EMS was concerned." The article spurred in-depth discussions with the firefighters, who then offered their campaign support.

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Dan Lovely

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