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Norwood rescinds Strong Chief Law

With a margin of just nine votes, Norwood Town Meeting members voted Monday to rescind the town’s Strong Chief Law.

The article, one of six Fire Department-related items on the warrant, generated nearly two hours of discussion.

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It was proposed by the Board of Selectmen, which, after letting go Michael Howard as fire chief last month, decided it was time to reevaluate the chief’s powers and budgetary duties.

According to Massachusetts General Law 48, Section 42, a strong 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.

Now that the law has been removed, the incoming fire chief will no longer report to the Board of Selectmen. Instead, he or she will report directly to the general manager, who will be in charge of the Fire Department’s budget.

At Monday’s session, Andy Quinn, president of the Norwood firefighters union, gave a presentation about the reasoning behind the “strong chief’’ system. He said that the law allowed the chief to manage every aspect of the department and keep politics out of the day-to-day dealings.

“The Fire Department needs to be headed by a professional firefighter, not a professional administrator,” he said.

On the flip side, selectmen said that because a “strong chief” is in charge of the fire budget, it takes the chief’s time from other department issues. Several selectmen also said that they don’t have the skills needed to oversee the chief’s budgetary decisions, and that should be left to a professional like the general manager.

“You can’t expect a retired police officer or a bread-maker to oversee the department,” Selectman Paul Bishop said, referring to himself and the board’s chairman, Michael Lyons, who owns a bakery.

Residents spoke on both sides of the article, urging their fellow Town Meeting members to think about the issue from a business perspective and to leave feelings aside.

“We need to keep emotion out of this; it’s really incumbent upon us to decide what is right for the town,” resident Gerri Slater said.

After calling for a voice vote and a show-of-hands vote, members ultimately decided on a standing vote, with 88 people voting “yes” and 79 voting “no.”

Town Meeting also approved 10 budgetary articles and indefinitely postponed one that would have approved the funding for a concession stand at Norwood High School.

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