OXFORD — A half dozen members the Fire Department presented selectmen Thursday night with a letter urging the board to hire fire Chief Scott Hunter when the position changes from an elected to an appointed one.
The letter was signed by 32 firefighters and rescue personnel.
“It is extremely important to be able to trust and respect your leaders in the procession of emergency response, as it can be such a dangerous job with many unforeseen challenges,” the letter says, “Only trust, respect, experience and training can make a difference, and those are all qualities Chief Hunter holds.”
However, immediately after the meeting, outside the selectmen room, firefighter and EMT Zac Creps, who acted as spokesperson for the contingent, told town officials that firefighters have grown frustrated trying to get answers from the town office on the day-to-day operation of the Fire Department.
In June, voters at the annual town meeting approved the change from election of the chief to appointment by town officials by a vote of 242-131. Copies of the town warrant were available at the Town Office, transfer station and other sites before the vote.
“The six in that room — the selectmen and the town manager — they aren’t giving the Fire Department the support we need. A lot of people are kicking themselves in the butt because they didn’t realize what the vote meant. But they never had the chance to ask the questions,” Creps said after the meeting.
Creps said ‘back-door tactics’ have caused a rift to spread throughout the entire Fire Department.
During the meeting, Rescue Department Capt. Patty Hesse asked whether the town acted improperly in failing to advertise that the question had been added to the ballot. She said town officials should have scheduled a public hearing within 10 days of the decision to add the article to the town warrant so voters would know about the proposed change.
Town Manager Michael Chammings did not dispute that no public hearing was held, but said the town meeting warrant was reviewed by the town attorney prior to being placed on the ballot.
“The town voted 2-to-1 to change this. The town is growing and a full-time chief is needed. It’s the evolution of the town for it to go that way,” Chammings said.
Residents had an opportunity to vote, Chairman of the Board of Selectmen Floyd Thayer said.
Chammings has previously said the town needs a full-time fire chief with flexible hours to meet an expected growth in business and population.
According to firefighters, Hunter works three 12-hour shifts a week for the Oxford Fire Department. He also works for the Auburn Fire Department.
Under the new changes, which will not be in effect until Hunter’s term expires later this year, the full-time chief will be required to work 37 hours week to start with.
This is not the first time firefighters and the town manager have sparred on Fire Department issues. In June, Hunter accused Chammings of favoring business expansion over safety concerns, saying it has led to a rift between himself and the town manager.
However, Thayer and Selectman Scott Owens said they had not heard about the issues raised by firefighters’ prior to Thursday night.
Chammings left the Town Office shortly after the meeting and was not available to address the comments.
Creps said he has met with resistance and delays in bringing up the issues, and has resorted to consulting neighboring towns for advice and is considering bringing the issue to a referendum.
“The fire chief is protecting the town by making sure safety codes are being followed,” he said.