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Massachusetts Strong Chief Weak Chief Battle in Dighton

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…

More on the story.

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Comments - Add Yours

  • Ron Ayotte

    It’s funny how some of the politicians think they own their positions on the city councils, boards of selectman and such and try to bend the rules to stay in office…

  • Dalmatian90

    >The difference has to do with the mechanism
    >available to local officials to remove a
    >chief.

    Meh…the difference between “strong” and “weak” is greater then that.

    A “strong chief” appoints his own officers and firefighters, establishes the regulations (policies & procedures; which for items like sexual harassment would need to square with town-wide policies), purchases (within town wide purchasing policy) equipment and maintain it, etc.

    In a “weak chief” town not only the Chief but all his officers and firefighters are done by the Board of Selectmen; the Selectmen establish the rules & regulations which the Chief is responsible to execute; the Selectmen purchase and direct the use and maintenance of equipment.

    So the strength in strong Chief isn’t his solely his ability to resist being fired; it’s his ability to write his own policies, make his own appointments, and make his own purchases.

    Also common in small to mid-sized towns is the “Board of Fire Engineers” system where the Selectmen appoint typically three to five “Engineers”; Normally this board appoints from it’s members a Chief, Deputy, and Assistant(s). Normally they use a “weak Chief” with the BFE operating in lieu of the Selectmen; but I believe they can adopt a Strong Chief.

    Once a community adopts a City instead of Town form of Government, then you get into a difference whether a city has decided that it’s Fire Chief is Civil Service or non-Civil Service; in the latter case they serve at the leisure of the City Council unless there’s a contract provision otherwise; in the former they’re protected by Civil Service from being dismissed except by cause.

    • http://firelawblog.com Curt Varone

      Dalmatian90

      Thank you for the additional info. For those not from New England who are unfamiliar with the Mass concept – here are the two laws:

      STRONG CHIEF:

      Mass GL Ch. 48 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. He shall have charge of extinguishing fires in the town and the protection of life and property in case of fire. He shall purchase subject to the approval of the selectmen and keep in repair all property and apparatus used for and by the fire department. He shall have and exercise all the powers and discharge all the duties conferred or imposed by statute upon engineers in towns except as herein provided, and shall appoint a deputy chief and such officers and firemen as he may think necessary, and may remove the same at any time for cause and after a hearing. He shall have full and absolute authority in the administration of the department, shall make all rules and regulations for its operation, shall report to the selectmen from time to time as they may require, and shall annually report to the town the condition of the department with his recommendations thereon; he shall fix the compensation of the permanent and call members of the fire department subject to the approval of the selectmen. In the expenditure of money the chief shall be subject to such further limitations as the town may from time to time prescribe. The appointment of the chief of the fire department in any town or district having a population of five thousand or less may be for a period of three years.

      WEAK CHIEF

      Mass GL Ch. 48 Section 42A. In towns which accept this section or have accepted corresponding provisions of earlier laws there shall be a fire department established under the direction of the selectmen, who shall appoint a chief of the fire department and such other officers and firemen as they deem necessary, and fix their compensation in an amount not in the aggregate exceeding the annual appropriation therefor. The selectmen may make suitable regulations governing the fire department and the officers and firemen thereof, and in towns which are not subject to chapter thirty-one may remove the chief and other officers and firemen at pleasure. The chief of the fire department shall be in immediate control of all town property used by the department, and of the officers and firemen, who shall obey his orders.

  • Thomas Medeiros

    Curt,

    Excellent article. I would like to THANK you for writing this article on behalf of the men and women that serve under Chief Roderick. Below is a letter that I sent to the local news paper that did not get printed.

    To ALL Dighton residents, on June 30th the Board of Selectmen will be making the biggest blunder of their political career that will cost the tax payers thousands of dollars and jeopardize the safety of each and every one of us. June 30th will be the last day of employment for Fire Chief Antone Roderick, Jr. The Selectmen have been trying to get the Fire Chief to sign an employment contract to which the Fire Chief has not only agreed to sign but has faithfully met with the BOS in an attempt to negotiate a fair and equitable contract and has bargained in good faith to get this done but the BOS continues to give him the run around by dragging this out and costing you money. The Fire Chief has been very public with “I only want what my men get no more and no less”.
    Currently two members of the BOS are dead set on “NOT” reaching an agreement with the Chief. The BOS does not like the fact that Chief Roderick has total control of “HIS” department and they seethe at the opportunity to control something that they have no clue on. I have never seen such a vindictive, self centered and dysfunctional BOS in my 21 years of living in Dighton.
    I have been proudly serving the residents of Dighton for 20 years now and have worked under 4 fire chiefs. They all had their own personal touch and dedication to the department and to the residents of Dighton, each of them served this community with pride, honor and dignity.
    The Dighton Fire Department has advanced leaps and bounds under Chief Roderick. The men and women of this department are better trained and better equipped because of the dedication, pride and loyalty Chief Roderick has in his men & women that serve under him, the department and the town he grew up in.

    The Dighton Fire Department is a combination fire department it comprises of 7 fulltime personnel and 20 on call personnel. On June 30th if the BOS moves forward to eliminate Chief Roderick, the department ranks will drop significantly the town stands to lose over 100 years knowledge and experience that these men and women bring to the department and that will directly affect the life and safety of you the tax payer. The men and women of this department are proud to serve alongside of Chief Roderick and stand with him in his fight against the Board of Selectmen.

    Thomas Medeiros Dighton Firefighter