David Berry

Siri Hedreen / The Outlook

Former Camp Hill fire chief David Berry (left) asks the mayor and council to reconsider his termination.

The Camp Hill town council voted not to reinstate former fire chief David Berry Monday, following an hour-long appeal in an attempt to untangle whether the Camp Hill Volunteer Fire Department is a department of the town or a nonprofit corporation.

The council had voted to fire Berry last month due to his repeated failure to present certain documents requested by Mayor Messiah Williams-Cole in a letter dated Feb. 2. At the recommendation of the mayor, the council voted 3-0 against reinstating Berry Monday, with councilmembers Juanita Woody and Sue Thomas abstaining from the vote.  

The crux of the issue is whether the Camp Hill Volunteer Fire Department is a part of the town or its own nonprofit corporation. Last month, Berry's defense for not bringing in the documents had been that the fire department is a nonprofit organization independent of the town. According to Williams-Cole and town attorney Charles Gillenwaters, however, such a structure is in violation of the town's ordinance as the town owns the fire department's property and pays its insurance, utilities and part-time fire chief salary.

On Monday, Berry conceded the distinction was nebulous but said he was not aware such a structure was illegal or that he had to present any documents.

"I didn't know," Berry said. "I've never had to do nothing like this."

Eric Peatman, volunteer treasurer and secretary for the fire department, said somewhere along the line the structure had turned into a "God-awful mess" but questioned why it was now a problem.    

"Why has this not been an issue, say, 10 years ago?" Peatman asked.

Williams-Cole said he couldn't speak for previous administrations.

"I can't tell you why but for me, when I took this office I read the mayor and council's handbook frontwards to backwards," he said. "With me being as young as I am, I knew I had never been in a role like this."

Thomas also said she'd received complaints from constituents that they were being charged $500 for fire services.

"And the thing about it, they call and they look at the town thinking the town is charging them the $500," Thomas said. "And the town doesn't know anything about it."

Berry said that was "not right" and denied any knowledge of such bills.  

On Feb. 2, the town sent a letter to Berry requesting he present documentation of vehicle titles, inventory, bank statements, audits, donations and a responded call log for the past three years at the next council meeting on Feb. 15. When Berry did not present the documents Feb. 15, the mayor suspended his pay, giving Berry until March 15 to gather the documents in order to get his pay reinstated.

On March 15, attorney Charles Hall, who said he was representing the fire department unpaid, gave a collection of documents, including a budget, to Gillenwaters after the council meeting, during which Berry was fired. According to Williams-Cole, those documents were too little, too late and did not include bank statements, inventory nor proper documentation of donations for the past three years.  

"I asked for bank statements," he said. "I didn't ask for a budget because you can manipulate a budget in any type of way just by going to excel. Bank statements are legal documents because they show proof."

Williams-Cole said they had received a donations list but it was insufficient and only covered one year.

"If you look, y'all didn't even complete them in order," he said. "You go from December of 2020 to February of 2020 to April of 2020 to February of 2020 to January of 2020 to August."

In his appeal, Berry said the fire department had nothing to hide and the mayor could have called the volunteers and asked for the documents. The mayor, however, said he had a legal obligation to keep everything in writing, especially given the apparent confusion over whether the town needed three months' worth of documents or one.

"Everything I put, I put in writing and the reason I put it in writing is because everything that comes between me and him somehow gets mistranslated," Williams-Cole said. "And (by) writing, everyone here knows how to read. That's why I put it in writing, so there's no confusion, no 'Messiah said,' no 'he said, she said.' It's in black and white."

Despite repeated claims by Berry that he was willing to provide whatever necessary, the mayor and council ultimately decided over two months after the Feb. 2 request Berry's job was unsalvageable.

"I'm not in any way, state or form in any ability to make the recommendation that we reinstate you," Williams-Cole said. "You haven't shown, in my opinion, any type of way that you're willing to abide by the town of Camp Hill. You can say (so), but actions speak a lot louder than words."

While the town voted not to reinstate Berry, the question of whether the Camp Hill Fire Department will return to being fully part of the town or fully separate itself as a nonprofit corporation is unclear. While Peatman suggested the town recognize the fire department as its own nonprofit, Gillenwaters laid out what that would entail.

"That would mean y'all are going to have to leave the building, we wouldn't insure anything, wouldn't provide gas, wouldn't provide water," Gillenwaters said.

As a nonprofit, the fire department would choose its own president and fire chief and the town would simply pay a service fee. Alternatively, Gillenwaters told Peatman, the town could appoint a new fire chief, keeping the fire department under the town.

"If (Berry is) not reinstated then the town could appoint another fire chief and then work out agreements to keep where you are, leases and those things," he said. "You've got two options."

Last month, Williams-Cole said the town will advertise the vacancy for fire chief. After the vote not to reinstate Berry, the council meeting adjourned, taking no further action on the fire department.