The San Pierre Volunteer Fire Department will continue providing fire protection to Railroad Township for another month, following an emergency hearing in Starke Circuit Court Friday. It ended with both parties reaching an agreement to continue fire protection under the terms of the township’s current contract with the fire department until January 30. However, Fire Chief Joe Kryzyzanowski will temporarily step down during that time, with Assistant Chief Mike Korous taking over in an interim capacity.
If a permanent agreement isn’t reached by January 30, the issue will come back to court for another hearing.
Attorney Cassandra Hine filed the complaint on behalf of Kryzyzanowski and Railroad Township Board members Clarence Gehrke and Gus Eckert. During Friday’s hearing, Hine argued that Township Trustee Mandy Thomason’s decision not to renew the township’s contract with the fire department violated Open Door Law, since it didn’t occur during a properly advertised meeting. Hine said the meeting was subject to Open Door Law because Thomason was acting in her official capacity as trustee and conducting township business.
Attorney Minh Wai, representing Thomason and township board member Michael Lawecki, responded that the law was designed for governing bodies, not individuals. He added that meetings do not need to be scheduled simply to allow the trustee to carry out her duties. If that were the case, Wai said, meetings would have to be called every time a trustee submits a bill payment on behalf of a township.
But the bigger question remains whether a township trustee has the power to end a relationship with a volunteer fire department and establish a township-run department, without the approval of the township board. Hine believes state statute says no, while Wei cited case law that might suggest otherwise.
Judge Kim Hall pointed out that he had insufficient time to read through the one-and-a-half-inch stack of legal documents prior to the hearing. He noted that due to its urgent nature, some documents weren’t received until minutes before the hearing was set to begin.
Hall encouraged the parties involved to work out their own solution, noting that court should be the absolute last resort for resolving disagreements. He added that when a dispute is brought to court, all parties give up control to the judge.
During a brief special session Friday evening, the Railroad Township Board passed a resolution to adopt the decision reached during the earlier court hearing. Eckert called for civility from community members as discussions move forward. He noted that Thomason should not be punished because of her ideas on the future of fire protection in Railroad Township.