WEST NEWBURY — Voters at a Special Town Meeting this week said no to a plan aimed at changing the way the town’s call fire department is led, in large part because they felt the idea just hadn’t been sufficiently vetted.
When Town Moderator Kathleen “KC” Swallow initially swung the gavel to start the meeting on Monday night, there were at least 40 voters present in the Town Annex, the number needed to open the special session. But the required quorum of 90 to take up articles over $20,000 wasn’t reached until 50 minutes after the meeting’s start time.
Selectman Glenn Kemper began by reading a resolution recognizing the “good and faithful contributions to the town” of the late Susan Follansbee, the 2013 Citizen of the Year who passed away in September. Then Chairman David Archibald announced that his Finance Committee was seeking input from residents on how it might improve the appropriations booklet it prepares as an educational tool for voters at town meetings.
By 7:50 p.m. over a hundred voters had arrived. They passed all 27 warrant requests except one that called for the adoption of a section of state statue known as the “Strong Chief’s Law.”
Selectman Joe Anderson, who initiated this article, argued that it would eliminate a layer of management by installing one fire chief, instead of running the department as it has been since 1885 — with a Board of Fire Engineers. West Newbury is one of only 15 towns in the state, and four in Essex County, that runs its fire department with a board rather than just a fire chief. Recently both Groveland and Georgetown made the switch to a strong chief, Anderson said.
Selectman stressed that fire personnel are “the shining stars of the town” and noted that his call for the creation of a 16-hour, part-time fire chief position would have no tax impact. He felt the current configuration — in which selectmen appoint a new fire board every April — creates a lack of continuity and makes it difficult to know “who is really in charge.” Selectmen chairman Bert Knowles Jr. also spoke in support of the plan, but their colleague Glenn Kemper was strongly opposed.
Referencing a decade-old professional analysis of the fire department, three Finance Committee members voted to approve the article, with two abstentions. The finance board acknowledged it had not discussed the proposal, which was a last-minute addition to the warrant, with the fire engineers prior to the town meeting.
Fire engineer Bob Janes argued changing something that has been in place for so long just because everyone else is changing is never a good idea. He decried a recent decision by selectmen to keep secret a legal opinion from town counsel on a possible conflict of interest in the way the fire department currently chooses its leadership. According to Kemper, town counsel found no evidence of any ethics violations, but Anderson and Knowles disagreed with that legal opinion and asked the town’s counsel to conduct further analysis.
The Daily News was denied both a copy of the original opinion — after it was discussed by selectmen at an open meeting on Oct. 28 — and of the additional legal review as discussed at an open meeting held in the selectmen’s office just prior to Monday night’s Town Meeting. Formal public document requests were made to the town clerk by the newspaper on Oct. 29 and Nov. 5.
Anderson, who initially raised the issue of a possible conflict of interest, argued on Monday that it wasn’t really the primary reason he brought forth the warrant article. He encouraged voters to put that issue aside and “vote what you think is right.”
But resident Kristi Devine cautioned against voting for something without first fully understanding the possible ethical implications.
And fire engineer Mary Fowler said she was “disturbed” by the lack of transparency and public education leading up to what she feels would be a “major change” for the fire department.
Ultimately, resident Rick Parker seemed to speak for many when he asked selectmen to explain why — after the fire department has done it one way for nearly 130 years — there was a rush to change things at a fall Special Town Meeting, when so much information was still not available to voters. Why not wait six months and try again at the Annual Meeting, he suggested.
Following the meeting, Anderson said he pushed for a vote now because a transition of this magnitude takes time to implement and it would have been good to get the process started. He noted that the way his motion was phrased allowed for further debate on its implementation and “all of the time needed to do a full search (for a new fire chief).”
Still, he was happy with the level of discussion and support his article received.
After the vote he spoke with interim fire Chief Michael Dwyer, inviting fire engineers to attend an upcoming selectmen’s meeting. With more dialogue between selectmen and the fire board and further education of the public, Anderson said he is setting his sights on Annual Town Meeting next spring.