What role should politics play in the fire service? Now there’s a question for the ages! That question is at the heart of a law suit filed last week by Dighton Massachusetts Fire Chief Antone Roderick Jr. However the politicians in Dighton insist it’s got nothing to do with politics, it’s about “merit”.
Every state has a few unique laws relating to the fire service, and Massachusetts is no exception. By state statute, Massachusetts has two types of fire chiefs, commonly referred to as strong chiefs and weak chiefs. The difference has to do with the mechanism available to local officials to remove a chief. A strong chief can only be removed for “cause”, while a weak chief is an “at will” employee. While the names given to the Massachusetts chiefs may come as a surprise to many across the country – the politics underlying the distinction should not.
Since 1971, the town of Dighton has been a strong chief community. However, the past few years, the town’s Board of Selectmen have been on a mission to put the fire chief under their thumb: they want to be able to remove him without justification. Of course they do not characterize what they are doing in quite those terms – they instead explain what they are doing in voter friendly terms.
Selectmen Chair Bud Whalon was quoted by the Taunton Daily Gazette as saying:
- “(Roderick) thinks he has a job here until he retires. That’s not the case. It should be based on merit.”
- “I don’t see why any employer, big or small, should have to be stuck with any employee that they are not happy with”.
- “I don’t believe the legislation meant for a person to be in that position until they’re 65.” [interesting since Chief Roderick has over 20 years to go til he hits 65]
So let me get this straight – an elected official wants to be able to fire a public employee without cause (ie for no reason), but of course has the political savvy to realize he cannot cannot admit that to the public – so he rationalizes the move to eliminate the “cause” requirement as being necessary in order to ensure that employment is based on “merit”. … Gotchya… merit. Yes, we are all in favor of merit. And elected officials would never play politics by firing someone for political purposes because they are really concerned about merit.
Here is the strong chief law, Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 48, Section 42:
Section 42. Towns accepting the provisions of this section and sections forty-three and forty-four, or which have accepted corresponding provisions of earlier laws may establish a fire department to be under the control of an officer to be known as the chief of the fire department. The chief shall be appointed by the selectmen, and shall receive such salary as the selectmen may from time to time determine, not exceeding in the aggregate the amount annually appropriated therefor. He may be removed for cause by the selectmen at any time after a hearing….
So how do elected officials go about getting rid of a strong chief who has not given them “cause” … so they can ensure things are “merit based”? About 2 years ago they decided to start negotiating a contract with Chief Roderick. They also set a deadline of June 30, 2012 for negotiations to be complete, and made it clear if they could not come to terms they would let him go.
According to Chief Roderick’s attorney, John Collins, “The terms of the contract have been pretty much worked out.” The sticking point is that the selectmen want the power to reappoint the chief when the contract is renewed, and are insisting that Chief Roderick agree that the Board can dismiss him with without a hearing. The problem is Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 48, Section 42 says otherwise. As a result, negotiations are at a standstill.
The suit was filed last Monday in Bristol County Superior Court against the Dighton selectmen, and seeks a preliminary injunction to prevent the selectmen from terminating Chief Roderick until the court rules on the suit. A hearing on the preliminary injunction is scheduled for June 19, 2012.
Meanwhile, in an act of almost unheard of support these days, the fire department’s unionized and call firefighters gave a unanimous vote of confidence for Chief Roderick. I could count on one hand fire departments in the US where a fire chief has the unanimous support of his/her firefighters, and still have a few fingers left over. But employment needs to be merit based…