OXFORD — A lawyer has said the town may have violated a state law governing referendum questions when it failed to hold a public hearing before a vote to alter the fire chief’s job last summer.

The claims by Martha McLean are vigorously denied by selectmen and, according to Town Manager Michael Chammings, the town’s attorney.  

In a March 19 letter addressed to selectmen, McLean said municipal officers should have held a public hearing 10 days before a vote on whether to change the fire chief’s position from part-time and elected to full-time and appointed.

“Here, instead of allowing people to participate, the town skipped the hearing requirement and held the vote anyway,” McLean said.  

McLean, who was hired by firefighters disgruntled that the vote wasn’t adequately publicized, noted that her attempts to gather information used to form that conclusion were unnecessarily convoluted. 

She said the town manager did not provide a straight answer to her questions and did not reply to a Freedom of Access Act request for selectmen meeting minutes. She said she was eventually passed off to the town’s attorney. 

“The fact that an issue is contentious or the fact that the town manager may desire a certain outcome does not excuse the town officers from following the law,” McLean said. 

She also requested selectmen contact her to schedule a meeting to discuss the issues, though to date an email confirming the receipt of the letter from the town manager has been the only reply.

Selectmen Roger Jackson and Chairman Floyd Thayer said Tuesday they had not heard about the letter. Relayed a summary, they disagreed with its findings. 

“It was a vote of the people, who said 2-to-1 they wanted it this way. That’s pretty convincing right there,” Thayer said.  

The issue dates back to last spring when selectmen voted to schedule a referendum at the polls asking residents to amend the fire chief’s position.

The article was placed on the warrant for the June 8 town meeting, and the warrant posted at the Town Office and transfer station, among other places. Among other notifications, the warrant read that a vote to amend the fire chief’s position would be held June 11. 

On June 11, residents voted nearly 2-to-1 to give town officials the power to appoint the fire chief. 

Zac Creps, a firefighter in Oxford, said he doesn’t believe the process was fair because residents should have had more notification of the vote. 

Instead, he said it casts doubt on the validity of the vote.

“We hope that the whole process will inform the residents what’s going on,” Creps said. 

Creps said he feels the town manager was motivated to oust fire Chief Scott Hunter because the two have publicly disagreed over safety issues in the past. 

Town officials have a different view on the issue. Citing state law on public notifications, Chammings said a lawyer for the town advised that the warrant — a document approved by selectmen and calling residents to a town meeting — was sufficient notification for a secret ballot referendum.

He said the impetus behind the change was so a full-time town employee could modernize the Fire Department, keeping current with training requirements and paperwork. Currently, the fire chief is a 30-hour-a-week position. 

Above all, Chammings said, the move wasn’t personal. 

“It’s change; people don’t like change,” he said. 

A message left with the town attorney was not returned Tuesday. 

Hunter, who also works as a commander for the Auburn Fire Department, said firefighters are upset they weren’t consulted, feeling out of the loop and without a voice. 

“This was an 11th-hour thing,” he said. “I think with something this important, the people need to have a chance to weigh in on it.”

“If they end up getting somebody better qualified than me, then by all means, hire them,” he said.

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