AUBURN — City Councilor Mike Farrell figures the current conflict between him and the Auburn Professional Firefighters Local 797 isn't about emails or where the firetrucks go in the afternoon.
"It's about power," Farrell said. "It's about who's going to be in charge and making the decisions: the city or the union."
Now he's posted an 11-minute video to YouTube, taken at 2:34 p.m. Monday, June 6, that shows Auburn Fire Engine 3 driving around the southern part of the city.
Farrell said he did not record the video to retaliate against firefighters for requesting access to emails but because of what it shows.
"They drive around in those trucks and it costs the city money," Farrell said. "They always say it's for training. That's always their excuse."
Acting Fire Chief Geoff Low said the June 6 trip that Farrell recorded has a simple explanation: His firefighters were touring the route of a drill that was scheduled for June 14 involving multiple fire agencies.
"They were doing the final drive, making sure it was safe to conduct the training," Low said. "They were making sure nobody had placed a trailer, for example, in a way that would block a truck from getting by."
Farrell said he was driving down Manley Road heading to the Post Office when he realized Auburn's Engine 3, stationed out of the department's Minot Avenue fire station, was driving ahead of him.
"I've had people telling me that they go out on these joy rides, so I decided to follow them and see where they were going," Farrell said. He took out his cell phone and began recording the trip.
Farrell posted his original video to YouTube on Tuesday. Because of a quirk in the video recording, the video is shown sideways. The Sun Journal downloaded and edited Farrell's original video, rotating it 90 degrees counterclockwise and reposted it the Sun Journal's YouTube channel. Farrell's original video is still available for viewing.
Farrell followed the truck as it continued south on Hotel Road, turning right onto Lewiston Junction Road. From there, the truck drove past the Auburn-Lewiston Municipal Airport, turning left onto Aviation Avenue and then right onto Flight Line Drive. It turned left into a dirt lot just west of the airport's taxiway and stopped.
Farrell continued onto Kittyhawk Avenue, turned around and waited.
The truck emerged after a few minutes, returning to Lewiston Junction via Flight Line Drive and Aviation Avenue. The truck turned left onto Lewiston Junction, then left on Kittyhawk and left again onto Flight Line Drive, with Farrell following and recording. After making that loop, the driver waved to Farrell. Farrell waved back and stopped recording.
He said he looped back up Hotel Road and stopped at the Dairy Queen on Minot Avenue. The firetruck came up Manley Road a few minutes later, turning onto Minot Avenue and returning to the station.
"There just didn't seem to be much of a point to the trip," Farrell said. "They just seemed to be driving around."
Farrell said he has heard numerous complaints about the trucks being used for non-emergency business, specifically stopping at area stores to shop.
Low said the department suspended that practice this spring, sending smaller vehicles out on errands. It initially stopped allowing the larger pieces of equipment to be used for building inspections and special events, such as festivals and running races, but allows those uses now.
"I really think all of this comes down to a large misunderstanding on the part of some councilors and a lack of communication," Acting Chief Low said. "What they need to understand is that my door is open. If they have any questions, they can bring them directly to me."
Low said Farrell and the other councilors' conflict is not with his department, but with the union.
"I know the players are the same, but there has to be a line drawn between the Fire Department and the firefighters' union," Low said. "As far as the union, Local 797, I have no control over them or what they do."
The union filed a lawsuit in Androscoggin County Superior Court against the city, the city manager and city councilors in May. The civil suit claims city officials violated state laws that allow access to public records. The union also claimed city officials violated members' civil rights.
The union filed a Freedom of Access Act request with the city in March, asking for all City Council and manager emails having to do with complaints or concerns about the Fire Department and its vehicles on the road, fuel cost-saving measures and life-safety inspections performed by the department.
Local 797 President Craig Bouchard said the union's goal is to understand the reasoning behind changes to the department's policies concerning use of city vehicles.
"We started to see operational changes that affected services," Bouchard said. Among those changes was the new vehicle-use policy.
"We talked with Chief Low and he had not received any complaints ... they had originated with councilors and with the city manager," he said. "If there are changes that must be made, we would like to be able to work with the chief to address those concerns. We feel that we do have a good working relationship with the chief and with the city manager and Assistant City Manager (Phil) Crowell."
Union officials said they had received documents from City Councilors Eric Samson, Belinda Gerry and Bob Hayes. Mayor Dick Gleason said he had no emails that met the union's request. Councilor Dan Herrick said he does not use email.
Farrell has said he would release his emails if the union paid him a $40 fee.
Maine's open records law allows Freedom of Access request recipients to charge a reasonable fee. Farrell said he is charging for five hours' worth of work to go through almost 18 months of emails on his Yahoo! account.
Farrell on Tuesday showed the Sun Journal 176 emails on his laptop dating back to March 2010, all gathered on his Yahoo! mail account by searching the word "fire." Many were not connected to city business. Some pertained to his son's junior hockey league — one of the teams was named "The Fire" — and others were personal emails he received from firefighter acquaintances in New Hampshire.
Several were city emails that referenced general budget topics, which included the Fire Department. A handful referred to the firefighter use of emergency vehicles, and those included messages to City Manager Glenn Aho from Farrell questioning the practice, Aho's responses and two messages from constituents who reported seeing vehicles out.
Farrell said he had also received phone calls and talked personally with residents concerned about firetruck use, but their names were not mentioned in the emails. Farrell said he was not sure that that's what the union officials want.
"Do they want to go knock on those people's doors?" Farrell said.
Bouchard said union members wouldn't do that. "It's just not something any firefighter would do."
Farrell said it took a single word search to find the 176 emails.
"But that's not comprehensive," he said. "I have somewhere between 1,200 and 1,400 emails in this account and I'll have to sort through each one in order to make sure that I'm giving them what they want. And that will take time."
Farrell said he's standing his ground on the email issue. He'll give copies to the union officials when they agree to pay his costs.
"People said that I should just give in, give them what they want," Farrell said. "But what happens next time they want something from the city? This goes back years and it's all bad communication on both sides. We're never going to settle it until we get it all out in the open, and I'm perfectly willing to just let everything come to a big, crusty head."
Bouchard said the union would wait to see what happens next.
"Unless councilors Farrell and Herrick volunteer those emails, the next step is up to the courts," Bouchard said.