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Newfield Fire Company shuts down over borough dispute

Like the borough itself, the emergency calls that summon the members of Newfield's sole fire company tend to be rather temperate.

Like the borough itself, the emergency calls that summon the members of Newfield's sole fire company tend to be rather temperate.

A small house fire, a trash container blaze, a car accident.

Still, the brothers and sisters of Newfield Fire Company No. 1 have long taken pride in voluntarily serving the 1.7-square-mile borough just north of Vineland. It's a job the company has performed since 1908, 16 years before Newfield incorporated.

"This town is well-protected by us knowing this town," said Ken Barbagli, the company's president and a lifelong Newfield resident. "The fires are just as hot in Newfield as they are in Atlantic City. Maybe the buildings are a little smaller."

But shortly after noon on a Wednesday last month, Newfield's firefighters did not respond to a minor car accident just a block from their station. A Franklin Township fire crew handled it instead.

In a local tale of acrimony invoking questions about small-town power, pride, and public safety, the approximately 25-member Newfield company has halted its operations in protest of the borough's removal of Chief Bill Mason.

"We're all sticking together," Barbagli said last week in the office of his company, KB Construction & KB Septics, where the firefighters now meet weekly.

The Newfield fire company is barred - via locks - from entering the borough-owned fire station. The Forest Grove Volunteer Fire Company of Franklin Township now responds to borough emergencies.

Newfield officials have a plan for the town's volunteer fire squad: It will create a new one.

The company was "holding the borough hostage," said Mayor Donald Sullivan, a Republican and Realtor elected to council in 2007. "They want to fight fires on their terms - and their terms are to have Bill Mason as their chief."

He firmly corrected a reporter during a recent interview: "He's not 'Chief Mason.' "

Tension between the fire company and borough is not new in Newfield, a borough that - with about 1,600 residents - is the least-populated municipality in Gloucester County.

In 2013, Borough Council passed a measure requiring the fire company's line officers, including the chief, to be appointed by the governing body. The same year, it fired Mason.

A report of council-approved charges against Mason read like a criminal indictment. Misconduct was alleged 20 times.

Among the allegations: The chief failed to provide certain reports, such as the company's bylaws, to the borough; yelled at police officers; and permitted a fire truck to be used for a photo in front of Barbagli's pizza shop without council approval.

Officials also say Mason ended a mutual-aid agreement with Forest Grove last year without council's consent.

Mason, who did not appear at a disciplinary hearing to face the 2013 administrative charges, called them a "farce." When he was fired, the company simply reappointed him.

The embattled fire leader contends certain officials have been looking for ways to target him after he was elected chief in 2009 over a former chief and councilman. Mason said that he'd provided the borough records to which it was legally entitled and that the mutual-aid change was a warranted decision.

The spat has even applied to the marquee outside the fire station. Fire and town officials cited disputes over what was posted on the dimly lighted sign, which the fire company bought but which is powered by Newfield. Solicitor John Eastlack claimed one argument involved trick-or-treating information.

Some in town are concerned that the personal conflict has been waged with little regard to public safety.

"You don't mess with people's public safety," said Loretta Williams, 72, an outspoken Newfield resident who lives a half-mile from the fire station. "We can't depend on another town to answer our fire calls."

Town and county officials maintain that the current arrangement is sufficient. Forest Grove's station is about two miles from the Newfield border. Other mutual-aid agreements are in force.

J. Thomas Butts, Gloucester County's emergency management coordinator, said Newfield's fire company responded to 45 calls for service in 2014, with an average response time of seven to 10 minutes - on par for such a department. He said he did not believe the new arrangement would present any issues.

Rich Silvia, president of the New Jersey Fire Prevention and Protection Association and a fire investigator for the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office, said all scenarios should be considered - such as what would happen if the neighboring towns' fire companies have other emergencies at the same time.

"When you don't have those forces in your own municipality and you're relying on someone else, it's going to take longer to get there," said Silvia, who spent three decades as a firefighter and fire officer. His nonprofit group advocates for fire marshals, fire inspectors, and others.

Mason said his company's absence was a risk.

At 52, Mason is a stocky, mustached heating and air-conditioning technician who joined the fire company in 1988 after moving from Vineland. He said he was inspired to be a firefighter after his step-grandfather died in a fire.

"It's who I am," he said. "These people are taking that" away. He said there were no complaints about the company's firefighting performance under him.

Though the fire company receives some funding from the town and its station is owned by Newfield and attached to the Municipal Building, no contract existed between the two entities until 2011, when council passed an ordinance giving the elected body some oversight.

The fire company sued to try to invalidate the town's 2013 ordinance regarding the appointment and disciplining of officers, but a Gloucester County Superior Court judge upheld the measure. In January, an appellate division affirmed the ruling.

"The fire company must accept these terms if it seeks to continue in its role as the designated municipal entity," the ruling noted. And, like writing on the wall, it said: "Nothing prevents the fire company members from declining to voluntarily perform firefighting services."

Fire company members insist they want to continue to fight fires, but not without their chief. They say attempts to control the company are political.

Mason and Barbagli unsuccessfully ran for office last year - the chief pursuing the mayor's seat as a Democrat while the company president ran unaffiliated for council.

"It was one way of solving the issues with the fire company," Mason, a former councilman, said.

Now, the borough has secured a volunteer consultant to assist in forming a new company, which some said could be done in months. Silvia said almost every municipality in New Jersey had at least one fire company, most unpaid.

Though volunteer firefighters are on the decline nationally, Sullivan said he was confident the town could assemble a team.

"We just want to have fire safety in town," Sullivan said. "I believe we have it now. But we want our own."