NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

Local News

November 6, 2013

Voters reject move to adopt 'Strong Chief's Law'

(Continued)

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.

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