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Norwood searches for fire chief

After years of a strained relationship and weeks of back and forth over how to end it, Norwood’s Board of Selectmen and Fire Chief Michael J. Howard are saying their last goodbyes.

On Tuesday, the board placed Howard on inactive status, and the next day selectmen were discussing the next step for appointing a new fire chief.

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Howard is required to apply in the next two weeks for accidental disability retirement, which would fall under the state public employees’ pension. If he is denied that, Howard will remain on “injured-on-duty” leave until May 17, 2014, with the town picking up his annual salary of $125,180, a statement from the town said.

It is an agreement that Howard and the board discussed a few months ago, but one that Howard didn’t accept immediately, chairman Michael Lyons said.

Lyons said Howard tried to negotiate a new deal before signing the agreement Oct. 8. “The town has made the determination that he is unable to perform his duties, so we have to put him on inactive status,” said Lyons.

While the end of Howard’s tenure is set, his departure leaves questions about the wrangling over the past few weeks. It also clears the way for the town to reconsider changes in the structure of the fire chief’s job.

Howard had been on paid leave since April because of a medical issue. Late last month, after reportedly depleting all available paid leave, he was placed on unpaid leave.

Howard did not return multiple phone calls seeking comment, and two recent statements released to the public did not specify what his illness is. However, a notice from the board said his condition may have “played a role” in Howard’s saying that he was harassed and treated unfairly by the board and town officials.

General Manager John Carroll and selectmen have not elaborated on any previous problems with Howard, but said they have chosen to “put it all aside [to] concentrate on bringing in a new fire chief to improve fire department morale and get its budget under control.”

Selectmen are also hoping to persuade members at the Nov. 15 Town Meeting that the issues with Howard in recent years are a sign that Norwood’s “strong chief statute” should be rescinded. Selectmen have sought the change twice in the past decade, but their attempts were voted down by Town Meeting.

“It’s now time to try again,” Selectman William Plasko said of the article proposed by Selectman Allan Howard. “We tried it a couple of years ago because we saw issues percolating up through the [fire] department, and I really do think that we should try it again.”

According to Massachusetts law, a chief under a strong chief statute can be removed only for cause after a hearing. Without the statute, the chief is considered an “at will” employee. In previous years, selectmen and Carroll tried to rescind the statute and place the fire chief under the direct supervision of the general manager. The exact wording of this year’s article has not been decided.

The recent dispute with Howard and the selectmen’s interest in reevaluating the strong chief statute appear to reflect issues throughout the later years of the chief’s eight-year tenure with the town.

Howard, the board, and Carroll have clashed over several issues.

At last year’s Town Meeting, Howard requested an article allotting $1.3 million for a ladder truck. Selectmen disagreed with Howard over the amount and ultimately approved an article calling for $1.1 million.  Town Meeting members ended up approving the additional $200,000 that the chief had requested, but the truck still hasn’t arrived, despite Howard’s assurance to Town Meeting that it would be ready to use this summer.

Howard and the board have also held multiple meetings about the department’s budget, and selectmen have criticized him for what they consider to be overspending to cover overtime costs. However, Lyons said this and other issues didn’t factor into the decision to let him go.

“Overspending on [overtime] is not a new issue; that’s been an ongoing struggle in the department for years,” he said.

“For many years [politicians and officials] have clouded the issues in an effort to have you believe that the chief or the members of Local 1631 created the budgetary problems,” a statement from the union said. “The continued underfunding of the fire department’s budget lies squarely with the administration of the town.”

After Howard was placed on unpaid leave last month, he issued press releases explaining his side of the story and thanking residents who he says brought flowers and cards and have expressed their support.

Howard is soliciting donations to cover what he says is 14,000 in legal fees as a result of the board’s decision.

“Never in my life have I had to ask for any type of help to take care of my family until now,” he said in one of the press releases. “[It is] because of the unfair treatment from the Board of Selectmen . . . and General Manager John Carroll by not allowing me the benefits pursuant to . . . Injured-On-Duty-Leave.”

Lyons said he hasn’t heard much from residents on either side of the issue.

“I’m sure there will be some people who either feel we were too nice to him, we treated him poorly, or someplace in the middle,” he said.

Deputy Chief Ronald Maggio will remain the interim chief while selectmen work on finding a new chief.

Meanwhile, the union has said it will continue working with firefighters to keep the department running smoothly. It has also offered to meet with residents who are concerned about the recent controversy.

“The citizens of Norwood deserve safe and adequate service,” said union president Andrew Quinn . “No matter what the situation, if you call we will always come to help.”

Natalie Feulner can be reached at natalie.feulner@globe.com.
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