WEST NEWBURY – Scott Berkenbush has resigned as fire chief, effective immediately. He has also stepped down from the Board of Fire Engineers and taken a leave of absence as a firefighter for the town’s call department for personal reasons, according to a letter tendered to the Town Clerk’s office on Friday.
Berkenbush had previously announced that he would serve as chief until next spring but would not seek reappointment. However, as of Friday, Deputy Chief Michael Dwyer had assumed temporary leadership of the department until the Board of Fire Engineers can meet to discuss this and other staffing issues on Wednesday.
In this capacity, Dwyer immediately sent an email to all members of the town’s call fire department advising them of the situation. Fire Engineers meet at 7:30 p.m. in the upstairs administrative conference room at the central fire station.
When reached on Saturday, town officials appeared to have various levels of knowledge about the unexpected resignation. Selectmen chairman Bert Knowles, Jr said he “didn’t know for sure” if Berkenbush had definitely resigned yet, but was told the former chief planned to drop off a resignation letter to the town clerk’s office by noon on Friday.
Yet, Knowles’ colleague Glenn Kemper said Town Clerk Michael McCarron called him directly on Friday morning to inform him of the news shortly after Berkenbush dropped off the letter.
“It was a surprise to me,” Kemper said. He immediately contacted the other four fire engineers only to learn that none of them were aware of what their colleague had done. Instead the former chief had simply told them he would be “unavailable” to handle fire duties this weekend, Kemper said.
“I find that very troubling,” he added.
Dwyer confirmed that Berkenbush contacted him on Thursday and asked the deputy chief to fill in for him over the weekend because he was going away. But despite the fact that, according to those who have seen it, his letter of resignation was dated Aug. 14, Wednesday, Berkenbush did not inform Dwyer or any of the other fire engineers of his decision to step down. When asked about the lack of communication from Berkenbush, Dwyer said he thinks maybe the chief just wanted to “make the decision for himself” without a lot of input from others in the department.
Selectman Joe Anderson said the chief had cited “personal reasons” for why he was quitting in his letter of resignation. Knowles acknowledged that he knew the reason, but said he couldn’t discuss it.
When asked as to whether it might be related to an ethics complaint lodged against Berkenbush a few months ago, Knowles again responded, “I can’t say.”
Kemper said he didn’t know the reason, but added that it wouldn’t be “a surprise” if it was related to the ethics complaint. “If it is (related to the ethics probe), we need to learn from it and make sure it doesn’t happen again,” he said.
At a selectmen’s meeting in April, Berkenbush confirmed he had been contacted by the state Ethic’s Commission about a possible conflict of interest related to the selection of the town’s new ambulance service, Cataldo-Atlantic, a company he had began working as a full-time paramedic for last year.
Last October, selectmen approved the transfer of an existing contract it held with AMR ambulance service to Cataldo at the recommendation of the Board of Fire Engineers. Then, in April, under advice from Town Counsel Michael McCarron, Berkenbush sought selectmen’s endorsement on a disclosure form that municipal employees who have a financial interest in a company doing business with the town file with the Town Clerk.
The form states that selectmen have reviewed the matter and determined that “the financial interest is not so substantial as to be deemed likely to affect the integrity of the services which the municipality may expect from the employee.” While ideally the disclosure should have been filed back in October when the deal was struck with Cataldo, McCarron felt that as long as the appointing authority — in this case, the Board of Selectmen — is made fully aware of the potential conflict and the form is filed as soon as possible, there shouldn’t be a legal issue for the town.
Kemper had argued for a bidding process for new ambulance services instead of taking the recommendation of the fire chief and other fire engineers, but because it isn’t legally required, the idea was not supported by the two other selectmen last October. Knowles and Dick Cushing, the other selectman at the time, rejected a stipulation to the disclosure form requested by Kemper that would have required the fire chief to abstain from any “discussions, deliberations or votes” that pertained to the ambulance service that employed him.
Berkenbush could not be reached for comment over the weekend, but in an interview following the April selectmen’s meeting he noted that in the competitive business of ambulance services it isn’t unusual for one company to file an ethics complaint when another company is awarded a contract.