Fire Department Fundraiser Sparks Concern Over Misuse of Public Funds

May 11th event raised money for burn victims, but some say city employees should not be engaged in private fundraising while on the clock

A recent fundraiser for child burn victims complete with a parade of fire trucks through downtown Petaluma, has prompted some to ask why public resources are being used to support a private foundation, especially at a time when the city’s finances are strained.

On May 11th, fire departments from around the North Bay, including Petaluma’s, held a burn relay, an annual event benefitting The Alisa Ann Ruch Burn Foundation, which raises money to send child burn victims to camps in the Sierras.

Although the relay started in Healdsburg, the Petaluma Fire Department engine met up with the group at Old Redwood Highway and accompanied the fire trucks to the D Street station, where it presented the group with a donation of $1,000, according to Captain Phil Sutsos, the Petaluma representative to the foundation.

The trucks then continued down to Novato—sans Petaluma Fire trucks-- before ending the day in Sausalito. They raised a total of $34,295 for the organization.

Sounds innocent enough, but critics say the use of “on the clock” fire fighters, gas and engines for a private fundraiser is inappropriate.

“At a time when teachers are being laid off, state parks are being closed, how can the state of California justify using public vehicles for a private fundraiser?” said Janice Cader-Thompson, a Petaluma resident and former city councilwoman. “Using city time, uniforms and other resources is not acceptable.” 

Captain Sutsos said that the Petaluma firefighters who participated were indeed on duty, but they never left their jurisdiction and actually had to peel off to respond to a medical call during the event. He said the Petaluma portion of the fundraiser lasted no more than half an hour.

“This is for children, to help them forget their injuries and feel normal,” Captain Sutsos said. “If people don’t know the whole story, they tend to jump to conclusions.”

Peter Perez May 22, 2011 at 01:32 PM
Hard to imagine that helping children is "not acceptable"....
charles merrill May 22, 2011 at 03:33 PM
The Petaluma fire department is to be commended for raising money for a worthy charity cause not criticized. The community will support such a cause and it is an important morale booster. I think the critics are splitting hairs here by saying that the officers must be off duty. Charles Merrill, Ed.D.
Ptown May 22, 2011 at 04:49 PM
Sounds like someone needs more hobbies. Every tiny complaint from Keller, Thompson, Francis etc.. becoming a story on this site is getting very (very) old. While some may be newsworthy, the majority are not. It's pretty boring reading an entire story on someone just being nitpicky. Some just only see that one negative when it is accompanied by 99 positives. Great job raising money for a great cause should of been what this story was about and it should of ended at that. If Thompson had something to say, well she could of said it right here in the comment section. Stop the hatin.
Chad M. May 22, 2011 at 05:52 PM
I'm pretty disappointed that the Patch would run a story like this. Who in the right mind would call this a misuse of funds? There was no funds even spent on this. This is an example of a former counsel member using this great community outreach event as a platform to undermine city union members. Completely reprehensible and the Patch looses creditability for publicizing this kind of political maneuver and try to pass it on as "news". And yes, this is filed under news and not opinion...
Karina Ioffee May 22, 2011 at 06:14 PM
This is a concern brought up by several members of the public and addressed at last week's city council meeting. Councilwoman Teresa Barrett agreed that the issue of when public monies are used for private causes--such as when a police motorcade accompanies a funeral procession--should be looked at. Just because you think this is a silly and insignificant issue, doesn't mean others do as well. And as for opinion, please show me anywhere in the story where my opinion is expressed. Petaluma Patch gave this story exactly the attention we thought it deserved---200 words to be exact.
Chad M. May 22, 2011 at 06:55 PM
Hi Karina - I didn't know it had been discussed at a City Counsel meeting. That's an important piece. I classified it as opinion because it didn't mention anyone else besides Thompson who felt it was a misuse of funds. I think there does need to be some sort of oversight on how city resources are being used, however there are many events and opportunities for departments like Police and Fire to be involved in the community and we should be encouraging that (assuming there is no financial burden on the city, which in many cases there is not). Take for example the Butter and Egg Days Parade - that is organized by a private group, should we tell them that they can't participate because it's misusing public funds? The Fire Department is in the business of serving the public, and participating in public benefit events is, in my opinion, a good thing for everyone. As I mentioned in my first post, I think there are some people willing to play political games as the expense of charities - and that's what I find so distasteful.
Realistic Petaluman May 22, 2011 at 07:47 PM
Agreed, progressive activists are seeking to co-opt this site as their own spin machine by running to Patch with every little complaint they have. I'd like to see a story on how every idea of theirs picked up by their city council allies (taxing medical marijuana, no police on funeral processions) is just "small potatoes" that won't make a dent in the city budget deficit. They are always raising distractions, sideshows and red herrings to the real need for retail growth instead of jut coming out and letting the voters know the simply don't want it.
Bradford A Morris May 22, 2011 at 08:07 PM
Bradford Morris I have an idea how about the people who bring up these concerns of holding back the progress of Petaluma, always disputing anything that is good for the quality of one's life, set a date to air their complaints and guess what, I for one will be there to let you know what a stupid person you are and you should, like I say all the time go out in the middle of nowhere live in a teepee with no running water no electricity no people for as far as you can see and talk and complain to the trees or grass or the moon. I wish for you a wild animal would be as nasty as you and attact you as you do others and see how you like a taste of your own medicine. I support the city and fireman to help my life and others to make our quality of life better even if it is at my tax money expence. Hopefully you or your family member are never a burn victim and need money for medical expences you can not afford. Nice people join me in telling the few bad eggs to go somewhere else your not wanted here!
Frank Simpson May 22, 2011 at 08:59 PM
I am probably going to regret jumping in on this, but I will proceed nonetheless. Strictly speaking, those who object to these activities by public employees may have a point. But what about the various activities such as "toys for tots" and other such programs around Christmas? Police escorts for private funerals? Well, if they are for military personnel, that has been a long standing tradition. To ma, a far larger question is the increasing tendenccy these days to sell off the public commons--naming rights, entire toll roads and freeways and yes, even private contractors are now running prisons. The California legislature has recently passed a bill allowing non-profits to run parks. It is but a short step from non-profits to for profits. At one point I recall that our former governor was going to sell off the state buildings. The trend will continue to be sure.
Karina Ioffee May 22, 2011 at 09:55 PM
Thanks for elaborating on your point, Chad. Several people expressed surprise at the fundraiser and wondered why it was held using on duty firefighters, but they were not willing to go on the record for fear of being perceived as "anti fire department." I think this is an important question to ask at a time of budget shortfalls, but I think Captain Sutsos explained that this a benefit that has been happening for at least two decades and at no point were fire fighters unavailable for their primary duty, which is serving the public. Anyway, thanks for your thoughts on this. We'll keep you posted if the city looks into this matter further. And if you think there are more important issues we should be looking at, by all means, send us your ideas and thoughts. We are all ears!
Ptown May 22, 2011 at 11:08 PM
Thanks Captain Sutsos for the great detailed explanation. I wish for Hamilton, Thompson and co. stop their knee jerk reactions so much of the time and try to do some research before complaining. Pretty sure that could cut meeting times in half. In the end everyone knows the real truth. These people are going to try as hard as they can to bash the police and fire day after day simply because they did not back "their" candidates. Pretty immature.
Paul Andersen May 23, 2011 at 03:03 AM
Wow! Public resources being used for private benefit? I'm shocked! Next thing you'll tell me is that the sky is blue.
Ptown May 23, 2011 at 03:21 AM
Public resources being used for" private benefit? I'm shocked?" Actually the accusation is public resources being used for "child burn victims". Some comments are just sickening and should not be political. But shows ones true stripes.
Petalumasaurus May 23, 2011 at 02:00 PM
The city is in contract negotiations with the firefighters' union, over the issue of staffing levels, correct? This rings of sour grapes, and a petty kick of sand in the face to the firefighters who took part in this. I'm not a firefighter, but I imagine that job to place tremendous importance on teamwork. This fundraising effort required no additional staff time, no actual diversion from handling emergencies, and perhaps a few gallons of gas. These firefighters should be recognized for finding a team-building exercise that cost so little and did something important for charity. Mayor Glass and other council members should get some perspective and support these folks, publicly. Who knows, maybe the Fire Department can help find a low-cost and much-needed team-building exercise for council members.
Cheri voisine May 23, 2011 at 03:01 PM
Firefighters offer educational programs to private groups all the time. Who hasn't had a private preschool group visit a fire station? Activities like this are considered public education about burn and fire safety and are in the accepted realm of community activities for public employees. While firefighters may reach 100 children at a safety fair to teach stop, drop and roll. An event like this, draws attention to the tragedy of burn injuries and gets everyone talking about how to prevent them. An event well worth the use of public funds.
David Miller May 23, 2011 at 09:19 PM
The minimal cost of participation in the event is greatly outweighed by the public benefit of burn prevention education. Fires and burns cost our State millions each year and this type of activity supports prevention efforts throughout the state. Many of the fire engines were back up engines or out of service and the firefighters when needed clearly respond to calls. The donated funds are raised by the firefighters throughout the year in a variety of ways and this is a great way for them to show the public what they have done. We should be cheering for these firefighters and the great work they are doing in the community.
Craig Marston May 24, 2011 at 06:05 PM
The use of public funds is always a great topic for discussion, some have great insight and some Don't. There was a cost to the tax payers for the Petaluma Fire dept to participate, Yes. Fire Engines cost $5-7 per mile to operate in there lifetime (100,000 mi. ) This is the only cost. Is that too much , for all the good this event does ? Really $ 28 spread out over 20 years. This is truly a great public scandal. Who are the Past/present leaders in this community questioning this public spending ? Maybe Legal fees the city spends defending it's self needs more attention. Millions vs. $28 Thats leadership.
Active Thinker July 08, 2012 at 07:40 AM
Leave the guys alone...they are helping out people who need at as always...come on...the city will waste so much money on so many lame old school practices and this is what people get into...fire fighters are there to help you out in time of need and do things others simply can not....give them a break. I say good job to all of them for helping out....
Patrick M. July 08, 2012 at 03:20 PM
Didn't think my opinion of Barrett could sink any further...I was wrong. Thank you Janice for taking a break from standing in front of tractors to pick on the firefighters.


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