July 1, 2004 – Merwin Potter, Fire Service acting director, was approved by the Senate Rules Committee on Wednesday to become the agency's permanent director. The committee proceeded with Potter's confirmation hearing contrary to the advice of its legal counsel, Yvonne Tharpes.
At the hearing Tharpes offered a second opinion backing the one she had delivered in a Rules session last week, saying Potter and Kevin Rodriguez, the governor's nominee for Personnel director, had been confirmed by default because the time frame for Senate action had expired. The committee on Wednesday also approved Rodriguez's nomination. (See "Rules Does Confirm Fire Service, Personnel Nominees".)
The senators were more interested in hearing what the nominees had to say than in rehashing the legal opinion. Sen. Carlton Dowe didn't essentially go along with either opinion. "When it's convenient, we go with a legal opinion," he said. "We should be able to hear the nominees, but we shouldn't have to hide behind legal opinion."
Potter, surrounded by Fire Service personnel, embraced the occasion to recount strides he said the service has made in the last year. He noted the just-announced plan to reopen the Dorothea fire station on St. Thomas in September once a new class of firefighter recruits completes training. While the Fire Service is currently 31 years behind in its level of service, he said, it is moving ahead.
This year, he said, the Cotton Valley fire station on St. Croix and the Tutu station on St. Thomas have already reopened. He said the keys to the fire engine shelter on Water Island have been turned over to the Fire Service, and on his "wish list" is a Fire Service presence on the island.
Potter said fire departments in the States have been merging with other safety services since the terrorist attacks of Sept 11, 2001. He called for merging the Fire Service with the territory's Emergency Medical Services and Fire Rescue units, saying this can be done by executive order or legislation. The merger would mean a significant financial savings for the government, he said, asking the senators for their support.
Also, he said, the territory's Homeland Security Council has recommended that the EMS and Fire Rescue functions as well as those of the Hazardous Materials and Weapons of Mass Destruction Response unit be placed under the Fire Service. EMS now falls within the Health Department and the Hazmat unit is within the Planning and Natural Resources Department.
Sen. Usie Richards asked Potter the status of two new fire captain positions for St. Croix included in legislation enacted on the Senate override of a veto by the governors earlier this year. Potter said the positions are included in the administration's proposed fiscal year 2005 budget.
Richards also asked about the Fire Service conducting fire inspections. Potter said such inspections, carried out by the Arson Prevention and Investigation Unit, bring in about $200,000 annually now but with increased staffing could generate up to $2 million a year. Potter also said the unit is understaffed. "Manpower issues, computerization of the unit, lack of adequate vehicles and local laws" prevent its full functioning, he said.
Potter's nomination, like that of Rodriguez earlier in day, was approved on a 4-0 vote, with Sen. Lorraine Berry not voting. Berry said she approved of both nominations but declined to vote because she went along with Tharpes' opinion.
The nominations now go the full Senate for a vote.
Committee members present were the chair, Sen. Roosevelt David, and Sens. Berry, Douglas Canton Jr., Dowe and David Jones. The other two members, Sens. Louis Hill and Ronald Russell, were excused. Also present were Sens. Richards and Celestino A. White Sr., who are not members of the committee.
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