LEWISTON — A multi-year process to replace all three Fire Department substations is off to a rocky start because of a dispute between the firefighters’ union and Mayor Shane Bouchard. 

The dispute stems from Bouchard’s appointees to a substation advisory committee tasked with designing the new stations. Last week, when the committee met for the first time, all five firefighters appointed by the mayor were absent. 

The president of Lewiston’s fire union, Rick Cailler, filed a grievance with the city in September over how the appointments were made, arguing that Bouchard didn’t follow the proper process when he didn’t notify the union of the appointments and didn’t share the criteria for appointing its members.

However, Bouchard and city administrators argue that the mayor has the authority to create and appoint any members to an ad hoc advisory committee, which is laid out in the city charter. 

Fire Chief Brian Stockdale denied the grievance request in September, and the union appealed the decision the same day. Following an additional hearing, City Administrator Ed Barrett also denied the grievance. 

According to Barrett, the union can still appeal his decision to arbitration.

Cailler, president of the Lewiston Firefighters Association, said Friday that he was contacted by city administration Thursday “in an effort to bring a resolution to our outstanding grievance.”

He added, “To comment further at this point may jeopardize an attempted resolution.” 

The city is at the beginning stages of what is expected to be at least a six-year process to replace the aging substations on Sabattus and Main streets and Lisbon Road. 

The stations were built between 1950 and 1952, and evaluations have shown the buildings to be inadequate for today’s needs. Funding for the first of the new buildings, at $3.3 million, was included in this year’s Capital Improvement Plan.

Bouchard said this week that the city charter gives him authority to make the appointments, and that he did consult with union leaders before announcing his decision. 

The firefighters appointed were Samantha Mayo, Nate Mailet and Chris Fournier, and Tim Trainor and David Beaule, who are lieutenants in the department.

Bouchard said the firefighters were chosen based on a broad spectrum of experience and because they represent a variety of shifts. He also said his selection of firefighters represents every fire station.

“We’re trying to create a blueprint for a fire station that we can use three times,” he said. “That’s the idea, so you try to do it once to save in architectural (costs).” 

He said Beaule and Fournier work out of the Sabattus Street station and are residents of the area where the proposed station will be located.

“Certain people in the union feel like it should have been their choice,” he said. “But the charter is pretty clear about who gets to appoint boards and committees.” 

The union grievance documents, which were obtained through a Freedom of Access Act request, accuse Bouchard of “willfully circumventing the collective bargaining agreement and labor-management process.” 

In Barrett’s response to the appeal, he states that the union also argued that “the mayor has no right to approach individual firefighters about serving on the committee.” 

The grievance describes the settlement requested as: “The employer acknowledge and adhere to the collective bargaining agreement, including the agreed upon labor management process. Work in a cooperative and transparent relationship moving forward.”

In Barrett’s response, he stated that “while the Association does not dispute the authority of the mayor to appoint such a committee it does dispute the mayor’s authority to solely appoint firefighters/association members without adhering to the labor management process.” 

In the conclusion of his response, Barrett stated, “I can only assume that the Association either objects to the existence of an ad hoc building committee or to the membership of the committee.” 

The collective bargaining agreement between the city and the firefighters association was the result of three years of negotiations and contract disputes. During that process, the union often claimed there was a disconnect between City Hall and employees. 

“That disconnect is not created by City Hall, I’ve learned that,” Bouchard said. “What better way to heal a divide than to bring people into the fold that aren’t normally part of the conversation. To me, that’s the better way to bring the employees closer to City Hall.” 

On Friday, Bouchard said that discussions between the city and the union are ongoing regarding the issue. 

In the meantime, the substation committee is expected to meet again this month. During its first meeting last week, committee members including Chief Stockdale met with an architectural firm to discuss preliminary design elements. 

In August, the City Council approved entering into an option agreement to buy a 10-acre property at 55 North Temple St. for the new Sabattus Street substation.

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The Sabattus Street fire station will be the first of three Lewiston substations to be replaced in the coming years. Five firefighters appointed by the mayor to serve on a building committee were absent from its first meeting because of a union dispute. (Sun Journal file photo) 

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