, Newburyport, MA

April 5, 2013

Fire engineer board vacancy filled, but comes with controversy


---- — WEST NEWBURY -- Selectmen made a little history this week by naming Mary Ann Fowler to serve as the first woman on the Board of Fire Engineers; and also invited former engineer Bob Janes back to serve again. But, as is typical with the selection of West Newbury fire engineers of late, the annual appointments did not come without some controversy.

Ultimately, selectmen chose Fowler, who has served for 4 years on the town’s call fire department and Janes, a retired 16-year’s veteran of the force who served for 5 years as an engineer, to join current fire engineers Scott Berkenbush, Michael Dwyer and Mark Hemingway.

However, the vote was not unanimous and, for most of the discussion on Wednesday night, it was unclear what the end result would be.

When Selectman Glenn Kemper made the motion to increase the number of sitting fire engineers from 3 to 5, he said his intention was to “help the board move forward.” The current board has indicated it wants to implement a plan to improve how fire services are delivered and seek funding for some full-time positions in the near future. But the idea hasn’t been fully flushed out because fire engineers don’t have the time or manpower to do so, Kemper said.

Increasing the board to 5-members would help get the job done, he argued. Kemper touted Janes’ “unmatched experience” and his belief in appointing qualified women like Fowler to roles of authority as reasons for bringing them forward.

Initially Selectman Dick Cushing said he favored the “stability and continuity” that came with maintaining the current 3-member board, but after a lengthy discussion and persistent urging from Kemper, he switched his position.

However, Chairman Bert Knowles wouldn’t support Kemper’s motion. He called a previous decision to expand the fireboard to 5 members back in 1999 a “colossal mistake” because two additional members were added after a 3 member board was already seated -- a move that he contends disadvantaged the newcomers.

Knowles proposed dissolving the fire board and instead recommending voters adopt the state’s ‘strong chief’s law.” This would create the most stability by establishing the fire chief as the sole authority of the department for up to 3 years at a time, he argued.

Cushing lauded Knowles for “taking the high and hard road” and acknowledged the town was heading toward a full time department. Still, he cautioned that integrating full time personnel into a call department could “create some roadblocks and be very difficult.”

Kemper felt Knowles’ suggestion offered too much change for an appointment process that is historically overly “political and hostile.” He made his recommendation after consultation with those familiar with the history of the department. “This isn’t something Glenn Kemper just dreamed up sitting in a fire hat in my house,” he said.

Both Fowler and Janes also felt the strong chief’s initiative was not the way to go.

“Change is hard, especially in this town. It comes very slowly,” said Fowler. She described herself as someone who is “more dedicated to the town” than to the fire department. She would strive to be a catalyst for change by working through departmental “animosities and egos.”

In his statement to selectmen Janes argued he should be allowed to serve as an engineer despite his recent retirement from the fire department. “Just because people like myself are over the age of 65 doesn’t mean that we are brain dead and have nothing to contribute,” Janes wrote.

Ironically, back in 2009 an opinion that Janes sought from the Public Employee Retirement Administration Commission was a factor in a controversial decision by selectmen to force the mandatory retirement of three veteran firefighters -- a move that selectmen at the time agreed also disqualified the men from serving on the Board of Fire Engineers. Stephen Arnold, Glenn Coffin and Kenneth “Kippy” Berkenbush -- who had served on the department for more than 50 years -- were dismissed when the commission opined that “not under any circumstances” could the town extend the age of retirement for fire fighters past 65 years.

The vote to dismiss the 3 veterans firefighters was unanimous and the selectmen serving in 2009 are the same people who are on the board today.

At the time Janes said he was raising the issue because he was concerned about the liability the town might face should a firefighter over 65 get injured or die in the line of duty. In his letter to selectmen this week he said he understands that if appointed as a fire engineer he would not be allowed to serve as an active member of the fire department.

But Knowles maintained on Wednesday that a fire engineer is statutorily responsible to respond to fire calls “wearing a badge and taking charge of the scene” -- something Janes could not do because he is no longer an active fire fighter.

In the end when Knowles abstained from voting on Kemper’s motion to add Fowler and Janes to the board, he stressed that his abstention was not a reflection of his personal feelings about the candidates.