On Saturday afternoon, St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly is hosting a forum on public safety issues. He's joined by Police Chief John Harrington, Fire Chief Doug Holton, and roughly 40 members of the public at St. Paul Academy. Given that, earlier in the week, Mayor Kelly had announced that he's running for reelection, the forum is an opportunity for him to tout his law-and-order credentials.
Chief Harrington ticks off an impressive list of statistics. Over the last three years, crime is down 30 percent in St. Paul, he notes, resulting in 5,000 fewer victims annually. Chief Holton recites similarly striking numbers. Just one St. Paul citizen died in a fire last year. Holton further boasts that it takes just four minutes on average for St. Paul firefighters to respond to an emergency, compared with six minutes nationwide.
But when the floor is opened for questions, it quickly becomes clear that Kelly's rosy view of public safety is not shared by many of those charged with keeping St. Paul citizens safe. Roughly half of the crowd is composed of firefighters angry about cutbacks to their department. Four years ago St. Paul Firefighters Local 21 endorsed Kelly's candidacy, but in recent months the two parties have been engaged in a vitriolic battle.
Paul Barrett, a 25-year veteran of the fire department, is first to speak. He criticizes the mayor for decommissioning Engine 20, which responded to fires in western St. Paul. Barrett further points out that there are presently 14 fewer firefighters on duty in the city than when Kelly took office. "I like what you say," Barrett tells the mayor. "I liked what you said last time. But talk is cheap."
Barrett is followed at the microphone by four other St. Paul firefighters, each harshly critical of the mayor. Pat Flanagan, president of St. Paul Firefighters Local 21, insists that members of his union are being put in danger. "We know something's going to happen," he says. "It's not if, it's when."
After the meeting ends, several of the disgruntled firefighters gather for beers at the Dubliner, just down the street from where Engine 20 was formerly housed. A fire engine is seen responding to a call down University Avenue. Flanagan points out that there's now nobody left at the firehouse if another call comes in. "Our tactics changed dramatically and also our risk went up," Flanagan says of the decommissioning of Engine 20. "It's a recipe for tragedy."