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.