An endorsement to elect George Williams for district commissioner appears on the Delmar Fire District website. His opponent, Heather Dorsey, is crying foul. Photo via a screen capture.
DELMAR — Google the term Delmar Fire District and you will be taken to a website, delmarfire.com. The site features district information and a link to the Facebook page for the Delmar Fire Department, which, according to Delmar Fire District Commissioner Chairman Gregory Gould, actually hosts the website.
While both Google and the Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce provide a link to that website under the search term and link, ‘Delmar Fire District,’ Gould contends that it was created and is maintained by the department, the nonprofit entity comprising volunteer firefighters who serve the Delmar Fire District. (The fire district, by contrast, is a political subdivision of the state — typically made up of a five-member board of commissioners and administrative staff — that oversees and manages the department, and is subject to more regulation.)
The website was a source of contention during the recent district election, in which Heather Dorsey narrowly lost to George Williams, the fire police captain for the Delmar Fire Department and ostensibly its favored candidate for commissioner. During the weeks before the election, an endorsement of Williams was posted on the department’s website and Facebook page and, according to Dorsey and her supporters, any comments she posted in an effort to promote and/or defend her own candidacy were erased from both sites.
“That website does not belong to the Delmar Fire District in any way, shape or form,” said Gould. Noting that it’s easy for unofficial sites to be put up on the web and other social media platforms, he continued, “The fire district does not have a website. It belongs to the department, not the fire district. So that’s the biggest difference.”
“A fire district can not endorse a candidate for anything,” said Gould. Claiming he was not aware of the post promoting Williams, Gould added, “I don’t even think the department can endorse somebody.”
Saying she was confused and hurt by the department’s use of its website to promote Williams, Dorsey noted a series of internal district emails that circulated just prior to the election, beginning with a criticism of her candidacy and call to vote for her opponent that was written and sent by Arlie Hedges, First Assistant Chief of both the district and the department. An angry rebuttal was then issued by District Commissioner Pat Dorsey, Heather Dorsey’s father.
According to Dorsey, her platform included a plan to “keep taxpayer dollars in the town.” She said she feels public safety is jeopardized when firefighters, particularly officers, live outside of not only the Delmar district, but out of town altogether. As the stations are not manned around the clock, volunteer firefighters respond to calls from their homes or businesses, driving to the station first, manning the apparatus and then driving to the fire. The increased response time is one concern, she said, but also the speed with which out-of-towners are likely to drive to the station when they receive a call. “It would be on my agenda not to allow this to happen,” Dorsey said.
Dorsey said she isn’t the only person who has felt disrespected by department officers, characterizing them as unwelcoming to new volunteers and more concerned with protecting their own than protecting district residents and taxpayers.
“To this day, I have no idea who George Williams is,” she said, explaining that she would have liked to debate him on a number of topics. “Has he dealt with budgets? We’re talking about nearly a million dollar budget.”
Short of a debate, she said she would at least have liked the chance to share her message on the Delmar Fire website and Facebook page. “Every time I tried to share that I was running, they deleted it,” she said. “It would have been nice to be on that platform with the other candidate.”
Unless they are codified in the department’s by-laws, the department broke no laws by using the website to promote Williams, according to Joseph Frank, general counsel for the Association of Fire Districts of the State of New York.
“If a fire department permits candidates for their internal offices to speak to the membership of the fire department in order to state their positions and ask for their vote on the internal fire department website, that is an internal fire department matter,” said Frank. “Fire department members are entitled to state their support for candidates in public elections like all citizens. They have freedom of expression. Fire department websites should probably not be used to do other than tell people to vote and give information on dates and locations of elections, but I am not prepared to state that any laws or rules are being broken.”
“There was a lot of things that happened during this election,” said Gould, referring to the emails. “I wasn’t very happy, to be honest with you. That is not the way I conduct business.”
Gould claims to have had no knowledge of the election content that was posted online and said he never saw it. (The post promoting Williams was reportedly taken down on the night of the election.) He also declined to speculate as to who was administering the website and/or Facebook page. “I’m not on social media,” he said. “I don’t get involved with that stuff.”
While Gould appeared to agree that the use of the website was unseemly, he said, “It was both sides, back and forth.” He also expressed displeasure that his personal email address had been widely shared during the argument between Hedges and Commissioner Dorsey. “That’s not okay, either.”
Asked whether the district would take any action to address the issue, he said, “Absolutely. Obviously, we’re going to step up our electronic security. And things will be addressed.” Gould declined to comment on steps the district was likely to take, saying he does not discuss personnel matters publicly.
“We had two candidates that were very passionate about what they do,” he said. “And they both ran however they ran.”
Dorsey, who ultimately lost by nine votes, said that she felt good about those who supported her and said she felt at least some district residents had become more informed as a result of her candidacy. She also said she intends to run again in the future.
“I think that people really want to have someone qualified to look at all these things, not just someone who has love for the department,” she said, referring a line in Hedges’ email. “And I think it would be good to have a woman with knowledge of the district representing the district.” (No woman has held the office of commissioner since the district was established in 1911.)
“Obviously, it was a very close race,” said Gould. “Which is nice to see, to be honest with you. It’s nice to see that people have that kind of interest and that people came out and voted. And it is what it is, at this point.”
Editor’s Note: Multiple attempts were made to reach Hedges and Williams through Gould, who said department officers and volunteers are not authorized to speak with the media regarding district matters. Gould told The Spotlight that he would reach out to Williams to have him contact the paper, but no call was ever received.