By Neil Schulman
Oceanport — The coordinators of the Office of Emergency Management and all but one volunteer for the department have all submitted their letters of resignation effective at the end of the year. They have said Borough Council members have not funded the purchase of an essential vehicle, which has been unusable for nearly two years, and they have “no confidence” in the council members on the Public Safety Committee.
OEM Director Mauro “Buzz” Baldanza told The Link that at the Oct. 17 council meeting, he read a prepared statement on “lack of action” to replace a vehicle which broke down in early 2018.
Council members have called the events of the Oct. 17 Borough Council meeting a “political theater” and say they have supported emergency responders.
At the meeting, Baldanza said that, “In January of 2018, the OEM 2004 Dodge Durango had an engine failure, the repair of which was more than the vehicle was worth. So it was removed from service. This vehicle served as our response vehicle, equipped with radio communications, a laptop computer with internet capabilities, a rear command console with floor plans, area maps, incident command vest, 6 portable radios, assorted supplies and equipment.”
Baldanza told The Link that having this equipment in the vehicle saved valuable time, allowing him to enter reports and data without having to go back to the office. It also allowed the OEM to keep in communications if there was a power outage.
In 2018, when council asked for request items for the capital budget, Baldanza said OEM submitted a quote for a replacement vehicle. After some more research, he submitted a second, lower quote for a $68,000 vehicle.
“The design of this vehicle was based on the potential risk factors the community could face and not just on a whim,” he said.
“It wasn’t till June 2019 that I had to text our CFO and asked if the vehicle replacement was being funded. I was told it was not,” Baldanza told council. “I never got a word, email, phone call, not one form of communication from Public Safety or Finance council members on this matter.”
He said there has only been one Public Safety meeting since 2015, in June 2018. Baldanza told council that with the exception of Councilman Michael O’Brien, who joined this year, he and the other members of the OEM have “no confidence” in the Finance or Public Safety Committees.
He said that working at the OEM has been a passion since he started.
“But when your community leaders, don’t support your efforts, that’s when the passion fire really starts to burn out and the fire of indignation builds.”
As a result, Baldanza announced that he, Chris Baggot, 1st Assistant Director; Wes Sherman, 2nd Assistant Director; and Police Chief Michael Kelly serving as 3rd Assistant Director, along with volunteers Pat Hickey, Rich Barnes, Keith Seely, Christina Ellam, Wendy Baggot, and Kevin Arban, were resigning effective Jan. 1. They would be resigning sooner, he said, but it’s hurricane season and they don’t want to leave the borough unprotected during a potential weather threat.
“We feel this drastic action is necessary to illustrate our collective professional concerns for the well-being of the residents of the community that we love and serve,” he said.
Baldanza told The Link News that he’s been with the Oceanport OEM for 18 years, taking over as Coordinator when its former head, Harry Sutton, was promoted to Police Chief. He’s been through numerous storms, as well as Hurricanes Irene and Sandy and other situations.
The position of OEM Director pays $4,000 a year.
Facebook pages exploded.
The Oceanport Republican Committee page posted a lengthy refutation from the Committee of Baldanza’s remarks, saying “your Council most certainly supports our emergency responders.” (Normally posts under the name “Oceanport Republican Committee” are made by Councilman Robert Proto.)
The post said that Baldanza already has a taxpayer funded truck he drives to and from his office. (Another post on the Oceanport Residents Facebook page said that since the summer Baldanza has left this truck behind a firehouse for OEM use, since it has the sirens and other equipment staff might need for emergency use).
The Oceanport Republican’s post also suggested this was an “orchestrated piece of political theater” for the Nov. 5 election, where Proto is running against incumbent mayor Coffey.
“The timing of Buzz’s resignation is also suspect. Did he resign in June when the budget was passed? No! If not getting his truck was so tragic, why didn’t he resign then? Did he notify anyone on council of his intentions between June and tonight? No! Could it be that he timed his announcement at the last meeting before the election in 2 weeks, while in front of a roomful of Mayor Coffey’s supporters? Most definitely!”
The post went on to say that the Finance and Public Safety Committees had made several purchases to help emergency responders this year, and rejected others.
Purchases included two power cots for the First Aid Squad, and a pair of SUVs for the police department. OEM’s truck was rejected though, as was a request for a $1 million new fire truck.
“Our jobs require making difficult decisions. Sometimes that means being unpopular and getting berated publicly. We know it comes with the territory and are still willing to make those tough calls,” the post said, urging voters to support Proto and his running mates, Councilman Joe Irace and Steve Solan, because making these decisions keeps the budget under control.
“The choice… is as clear as can be. Proto, Irace and Solan are the candidates willing to say no and make the difficult decisions because we always put taxpayers first,” the Oceanport Republican Committee said.
Many on the Oceanport Residents group had other comments and opinions, with a post announcing Baldanza’s resignation quickly getting over 100 posts.
“I do disaster and resilience research. Buzzy is well known and very very very well respected by emergency mangers, disaster planners, flood plain managers and private consultants throughout the state and region,” said Jack Harris. “His Sandy response was a masterful orchestration of volunteers, local know-how, and state and federal assistance… This action actually puts the town in jeopardy.”
Others, such as Maura Kelly, did see this as a call to vote for Coffey and his team.
“We need a big change for our community which is feeling so divided and lacking that friendly, warm feeling Oceanport is known for. I really feel that Buzzy didn’t deserve how he was treated,” she wrote.