Mediation offers suit resolution

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

A mediation recommendation presented during a Cloverdale Town Council special meeting Wednesday could possibly resolve the lawsuits with Cloverdale Township Volunteer Fire Department.

Attorney Darrell Felling presented information about settling the fire department lawsuit to the council during Wednesday's meeting. There are two different lawsuits in this case.

One is a lawsuit filed by the Cloverdale Township Volunteer Fire Department against the town requesting the second payment of a service contract. The second is a lawsuit filed by the town against the volunteer fire department for fixtures allegedly taken from the fire station and damage to the building.

Felling informed the council that he was the legal counsel for the township fire department and the Cloverdale Township Trustee, and that when he entered into the case, it had been pending since January 2005.

"The good news, we had mediation, and I have a mediation agreement with me," Felling said.

The mediation process took place between both parties and was overseen by Putnam County Deputy Prosecutor James Hanner. On Oct. 24, according to Felling, both parties agreed to have a three-member committee look at different options to settle the lawsuit.

In an agreement letter from Hanner, Felling read that the committee was created to provide recommendations to all parties as to how to provide the best fire protection for the area.

Felling provided the council with copies of Hanner's letter, along with copies of a recommendation letter signed by two of the three committee members.

In the committee's letter, after looking at various reasons including staff and cost effectiveness, two of the three committee members recommend "that it would be wise for the town, the other townships, as well as your fire department and the Cloverdale Volunteer Fire Department to consider merging into what's called a fire territory," Felling said.

Attorney Mindy Jackman then provided the council with information on what a fire territory means.

Jackman explained that a fire territory is where different towns, townships and other entities put their tax base together, create a board to take care of the fire territory, and remove fire protection from the hands of town councils and township boards.

The board takes care of everything from funds to budgets in the territory.

Jackman also said that there is a tax, and it can either be a uniform tax or a tax that is broken down so that taxpayers pay the tax that is distinguished for that particular township.

All entities involved in the fire territory, according to Jackman, would have to have identical ordinances and other actions, and all of these items must be created and approved on April 1 to be effective on July 1.

Council member Judy Whitaker asked Felling how the mediation process turned from the service contract and the station damage lawsuits to creating a fire territory. Felling said that there are two fire departments, and as a community, all involved need to come together to say "what are the good options."

"This seems like an act of desperation," Whitaker said after looking at both letters.

Although these letters make a recommendation, it does not mean that lawsuits will be resolve and dropped. It's just to see if all parties can meet on a common ground and move forward.

Whitaker said to look at going into a fire territory, the council needed to look at the financial impact that it will have. Council president Don Sublett informed Whitaker that if the council passed the recommendation, it would be looking at all the information on the territory, including the financial impact.

Whitaker said she believed the council should be looking at other options, along with the committee's recommendation. Council member John Davis also agreed.

The council agreed to look into researching other options and would have Whitaker contact Indiana Associations of Cities and Towns.

Felling also advised the council that there was another round of mediation scheduled for Feb. 14, along with a jury trial set for Thursday, April 12 at 9 a.m. A judge from Vigo County will be presiding over the case.

"We need to move ahead either with the litigation, continuing the litigation, and/or proceeding with all legal entities evaluating this fire territory idea and taking whatever action everyone deems appropriate," Felling said.

The council approved the committee's recommendation to set up a fire territory by a 3-2 vote, with Whitaker and Davis opposed. That recommendation still needs approval of township officials, and of the court.

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