The two South Orange firefighter unions have endorsed Deborah Ford Davis for Village President in the May 14 non-partisan municipal elections.
FMBA Locals 40 and 240 are backing Ford Davis in her bid to unseat incumbent Sheena Collum, who has touted proposals to turn village fire services over to neighboring Maplewood.
“We are invested in this community, many of us grew up here and South Orange will always be our home. To say that we are interested in seeing South Orange continue to thrive is an understatement,” said Jimmy Jennings, the Local 40 president. “Overall there has been an obvious failure of the current Administration to be open and transparent on a number of issues including redevelopment, plans to replace long term municipal employees, and the oft-stated goal to fully merge South Orange with Maplewood.
The unions say that Collum has touted the Manitou Study, which says that the “giveaway” of the department to the neighboring community will reduce the number of firefighters stationed in South Orange to just three per shift. They believe that response times assume travel at unrealistic speeds.
Collum, the unions allege, has been backpedaling the issue as she seeks re-election to a second term.
Michael Commins, the vice president of FMBA Local 240, said that this is the first time the two fire unions have played an overtly public role in a local campaign.
“It has been said that all politics is local, and as firefighters, when we are in the neighborhoods interacting with residents on a daily basis, we see more than just about anyone how local leaders impact the community we serve,” said Commons.
Jennings said that Collum’s move to regionalize fire services was not the only reason for the endorsement.
“Long Facebook posts don’t equal open government,” Jennings said. “Now, more than ever, we need a Village President who is willing to put their energy into making South Orange even better, not advancing a political agenda and career on the backs of our neighbors
Collum became the first woman village president when she was elected in 2015 with 70% of the vote against Emily Hynes. Collum had been a village trustee for two years; Hynes was an attorney and political newcomer.
Alex Torpey declined to seek re-election that year after one term as village president
In her official biography, Collum calls herself “an unapologetic, pussyhat-wearing progressive.” She is the executive director of the American Planning Association’s New Jersey chapter.
Davis Ford has close ties to the Essex County Democratic organization and has served as clerk of the Board of Freeholders since 2009. She is giving up the council seat she’s held since 2007 – Davis Ford ran unopposed in the last two elections – to run for village president.
South Orange Fire Department responded to over 2,200 calls — including house fires, car accidents, and other emergency situations – last year, according to Commins.
“The real concern is that what Ms. Collum has said in the past doesn’t jive with what she is saying now, under the microscope of an election campaign,” Commins explained. “This is politics at its worst, and something that could have been largely avoided had she been more open about her plans for the future of public safety in South Orange.”
The local endorsements have the backing of a powerful state political leader, NJ FMBA president Eddie Donnelly, whose union represents more than 5,000 firefighters, EMT’s and dispatchers.
“When a leader is confident in their plan they don’t charge forward alone,” said Donnelly. “Ms. Collum’s decision to largely keep key stakeholders, most notably the men and women that know firefighting best, in the dark about her plan to cede responsibility of maintaining a strong fire department for the residents she is supposed to represent is a clear indicator that she knows it’s wrong.”
Collum did not respond to Donnelly’s offer to provide South Orange with the union’s expertise on the delivery of firefighting services, the FMBA president said.
“In discussing with my members what involvement they thought was appropriate in this campaign, and then reading the distorted facts coming from Ms. Collum’s camp, it became clear that a full endorsement of Deborah Davis Ford, backed up with political action that will see our firefighters going door to door to talk to the residents they protect every day, was the only viable option,” Donnelly said.