Change has already arrived at the Norwood Fire Department, and more turnover may be on the horizon.
On Thursday, Town Meeting members will once again be asked to decide whether they want to rescind the town’s decades-old “strong chief law,” just weeks after the Board of Selectmen unanimously removed Michael Howard as fire chief.
Some selectmen, such as Allan Howard, who proposed the article to rescind the law, are hoping to convince members that recent and past issues with Howard demonstrate the need for change. They also argue that since the town is between chiefs, now is the perfect time to evaluate what powers the new chief should have.
“We tried [to rescind the law] 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,” Selectman William Plasko said at a recent meeting.
The law was adopted by Town Meeting on March 24, 1926, and was written into the town’s charter at that time. According to the Fire Chiefs Association of Massachusetts, the law is in effect in 88 other communities, and some have dropped it over the years.
Massachusetts General Law 48, Section 42, states that the chief “shall have and exercise all the powers and discharge all the duties conferred or imposed by statute upon engineers . . . and shall appoint a deputy chief and such officers and firemen as he may think necessary.” It goes on to say that the chief shall also have “full and absolute authority in the administration of the department,” but is required to report to selectmen from time to time.
According to firefighter groups that support the law, its primary goal is to keep politics out of the firehouse.
“The law gives the chief the authority and the ability to run the department as he sees fit,” said Andrew Quinn, president of the Norwood Fire Department’s union. “By taking away that authority, he is no longer in charge, allowing for political hires and appointments, bringing an extra roadblock into the management of the department.”
In towns where strong chief statutes exist, chiefs are in charge of the hiring and firing of employees, they can be fired only for “just cause,” and they have complete control over how the department’s annual budget is distributed — a point of contention in Norwood.
Prior to Howard being placed on inactive leave in October, he and selectmen had met multiple times about the department’s budget. Selectmen criticized him for overspending to cover overtime costs.
At the time, Howard said that the excess costs, which will also need Town Meeting approval next week, were a necessary evil due to staffing cuts.
Also, several complaints were filed against Howard in recent years over his management of the department.
Selectmen have refused to elaborate on the details of those complaints, citing confidentiality of personnel matters, and board chairman Michael Lyons said those earlier issues did not directly affect the board’s decision to let him go.
“Overspending on [overtime] is not a new issue; that’s been an ongoing struggle in the department for years,” Lyons said in an interview last month.
An attempt to rescind the law failed at Town Meeting in 2004, shortly before Howard became chief. In 2011, General Manager John Carroll put forth an article similar to the one now under consideration. That attempt also failed.
“The heart of the matter is that the voters believe selectmen have an obligation to do their job, and part of that job is to be in charge of the fire chief,’’ said Dennis Mawn, the firefighter union’s vice president.
If the strong chief law is rescinded, selectmen have not specified what would replace it. At the very least, Carroll would become the direct supervisor of the department, as required under Section 42A, which takes effect if towns do not have strong-chief wording in their charters.
Carroll already oversees nearly a dozen other departments, including the police, recreation, and public works departments.
But in the eyes of the union, it’s important to recognize that he does not have adequate experience in managing the needs of a fire department.
“The town manager has no background in the fire service; therefore he should not be involved in the day-to-day operations or the internal promotional process,” a statement from the Norwood firefighters union said.
Last year, Carroll said he would not interfere with the daily running of the department, but would offer guidance to the chief. This time, he said he’s staying out of the discussion.
“I’m not going to comment on this. . . . It has nothing to do with me personally. I’m not going to be in this position forever; it has to do with whoever the general manager is,” he said.
According to Mario Orangio, president of the Fire Chiefs Association of Massachusetts, if the town rescinds the statute, a number of options are available.
In Massachusetts, there are strong chiefs, weak chiefs, part-time chiefs, contract chiefs, and chiefs designated as civil servants.
Ultimately, Town Meeting will decide how to redefine the powers of the incoming chief.
“Once you decide to rescind it, it’s up to the community. There’s no automatic, ‘If he’s not this then he has to be that’’ kind of chief, said Orangio, who is Watertown’s fire chief.Natalie Feulner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.