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Published: Wednesday, 3/9/2005

Bradner blackballs age-old procedure

BY JENNIFER FEEHAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER

BRADNER, Ohio - Prospective firefighters in this Wood County village are not likely to run the risk of being blackballed anymore.

At the urging of insurance representatives and legal counsel, the Bradner Volunteer Fire Department plans to do away with the blackball system it has had in place since the department formed in 1894.

While the village has been told the system is a liability issue, it has never been sued by a candidate who was rejected by a vote of firefighters, and some still believe it's a good way to decide who would make a good firefighter and who wouldn't.

"You can make any rule in the world and until it's challenged you don't know if it's going to stand the test of time or not," Bradner Fire Chief Jim Smith. "This was in place when I joined in 1964."

Under the procedure, prospective firefighters come into the department as trainees, and at the end of their probation, members cast votes for or against them joining.

"We were kind of a self-policing group that had a constitution and bylaws, and part of that was the voting process, which was simply a wooden box that's got black balls and white balls in it," Chief Smith explained. "If you accept the individual, you put a white ball in. If you reject them, you put a black ball in."

If a candidate received three or more black balls, the candidate was rejected for membership. Those who cast the black balls, though, then had to explain the reason for voting against the candidate. Chief Smith said the membership could then decide whether to uphold or reject the blackball.

"To me, I think it's a fairer vote than casting a ballot," Chief Smith said. "It's very easy for someone to cast a ballot saying yes or no. To me, this seems like more of a burden."

Regardless of his opinion, state law says only village officials or, if directed by council, the fire chief can appoint firefighters. Members of the fire department should not be voting at all, advised officials with Ohio Plan, Bradner's insurance carrier. Village Solicitor Chet Marcin concurred.

The blackball system "transfers some authority to the members to exclude people that otherwise might be qualified," Mr. Marcin said. "I think in our modern day, people need to be chosen because of their qualifications and abilities."

Candidates for the department can be appointed on a probationary basis, and if they complete all of the training and other requirements, they should be appointed, period, he said.

"They've always done it that way," Mr. Marcin said, referring to the blackball system. "Their stated reason was they all have to work together in a dangerous situation and they want to feel comfortable with who they're working with and should be able to vote yes or no on that person. I think the courts are leaning in the direction of saying, even if it's a voluntary position you have to treat everyone equally."

Chief Smith said candidates in the past had been rejected primarily due to issues relating to their moral character or incidents in their past that were not known by the membership.

The fire department is formulating a new policy and procedure manual that is to outline a new selection process that does not include black balls, the chief said.

Contact Jennifer Feehan at:

jfeehan@theblade.com

or 419-353-5972.



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