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New volunteer citizen group approved; some St. Lawrence County lawmakers fear liability risks

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CANTON — A proposal to to sponsor a volunteer citizen group that would assist officials during emergencies was narrowly approved Monday by the St. Lawrence County Legislature over the objections of several legislators who fear the new venture exposes the county to costly liability risks.

In an 8-6 vote, legislators agreed to sponsor a Citizen Corps and a Citizen Corps Council “to enhance community emergency preparedness” in St. Lawrence County.

Although the group will be under the direction of the county’s Department of Emergency Services, it is supposed to be a stand-alone entity that is self funded, self trained and recruits its own members at no cost to the county.

The volunteers would be trained to help first responders and firefighters during emergencies such as the 1998 ice storm and spring flooding. They’d help out with tasks like checking on senior citizens, staffing shelters, assisting during evacuations and doing damage assessment.

Veteran legislator Sally A. Brothers, D-Norfolk, reminded her colleagues about a costly lawsuit the county faced a decade ago when a volunteer with the now-defunct Citizen Patrol was killed in a traffic accident while volunteering. After a lengthy legal battle his widow was awarded a $15,000 settlement to satisfy negligence claims as well as $576.92 a week in workmen’s compensation benefits .

“Once bitten, twice shy,” Mrs. Brothers said. “I cannot and will not support this.”

Joining her in voting against the measure were Alexander A. MacKinnon, R-Fowler, Donald A. Peck, R-Gouverneur, Stanley A. Morrill, D-DeKalb, Tony Arquiett, D-Helena, and Vernon “Sam” Burns, D-Ogdensburg.

Support came from Joseph R. Lightfoot, R-Ogdensburg, Scott M. Sutherland, R-Canton, Kevin D. Acres, R-Madrid, Stephen M. Putman, D-Canton, James A. Bunstone, D-Potsdam, Daniel F. Parker, R-Potsdam, Gregory M. Paquin, D-Massena, and Jonathan Putney, D-Lisbon. Mark H. Akins, R-Lisbon, was absent.

Advocates countered that the county already has numerous volunteers who open the county to liability claims, such as those who deliver meals to shut-ins.

Mr. Putman said the volunteer citizen groups wouldn’t be used on a regular basis, which reduces the county’s liability exposure.

“I think these people would be used pretty seldomly,” Mr. Putman said. “Every fire and rescue volunteer is covered by worker’s compensation and their exposure is much greater.”

Mr. Burns said he was concerned that starting a new volunteer citizen group would take too much time from County Emergency Service Director Joseph M. Gilbert.

“Our responsibility is to minimize liability,” Mr. Burns said. “We have enough issues in emergency services. It takes away from what I think we need him to do.”

Mr. Gilbert supports the idea and said he will serve on the council, which will meet monthly. He estimated his time commitment will be between two and four hours a month.

Responding to a question, County Attorney Michael Crowe said the county will not spend any funding on the volunteer group, including any training costs.

Mr. Acres said volunteer fire and rescue organizations are stretched thin and could use the extra help when needed. He noted that Joseph A. Finnegan, chairman of the county’s Fire Advisory Board, supports starting the volunteer group.

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