Sun Journal, Lewiston, Maine
“The authority of the fire chief has been compromised.”
That was the sentiment expressed in a letter from former Paris Fire Chief Jon Longley to the Sun Journal on Saturday. In his letter, Longley sheds more light on the conflict between the fire department and Town Manager Dawn Noyes, which reached its boiling point this week when 18 firefighters resigned.
“It really is quite simple: the authority of the Fire Chief has been compromised,” Longley wrote.
The mass resignation came Wednesday afternoon after Noyes, along with Human Resources Manager Paula Andrews, apparently reversed a decision on a personnel matter made by fire Chief Mark Blaquiere. The chief had reduced the rank of an individual in the department, but Noyes reinstated the person’s rank. The name of the captain whose rank was restored has not been made public.
Former longtime Fire Chief Brad Frost was the only firefighter who did not resign Wednesday.
According to Longley’s letter, Blaquiere “made a decision in good faith regarding a personnel issue.”
“This decision was not made quickly nor without great consideration and input from his officers. Past practices were reviewed along with standard operating procedures and compared to job descriptions and responsibilities. His decision was made in the best interest of the department with no bias,” wrote Longley.
During the monthly meeting between Noyes, Andrews and the fire department, Longley wrote, firefighters asked Noyes about reversing Blaquiere’s decision, but Noyes “would not comment on the actions, stating it was a personnel issue.” After, members expressed concerns that if changes had been made to the current command structure, they should be made aware.
“The town manager and human resources head refused to comment. The same question was directed to the fire chief. The fire chief hesitated to answer, however, acknowledged his decision had been overturned. The chief was then asked ‘Is this your wish and are you comfortable with the final decision?’ His reply was simply ‘No’.” Longley wrote.
During a question-and-answer segment with the firefighters, Noyes and Andrews said that the “new policy” regarding complaints was prematurely released, and had since been retracted.
Firefighters met with Noyes and Andrews in September to discuss the personnel issue at the heart of the controversy and said on Feb. 13 that the original complaint had been “kicked down the road” for months by the town.
On Feb. 13, six members of the department attempted to hand an envelope directly to the Board of Selectmen containing the complaint, but the envelope was rejected.
Andrews said handing the complaint over to the board violated the town’s personnel policy and she advised the board not to take the envelope.
“If it’s personnel-related, you have to take it to your supervisor first, and if they haven’t addressed it, you take it to the town manager,” Andrews said. “If you haven’t brought it to her, you can’t bring it to the board.”
The new policy, posted Feb. 6 to a bulletin board at the Paris Town Office and signed by Andrews, stated that employees, as an extra step, are required to submit complaints to the Human Resource Department.
Former Selectmen Scott Buffington said the change was unauthorized.
“The whole thing’s a mess … that hasn’t been approved by the Select Board,” he said. “Any policy and procedure change has to be approved by the board.”
At the meeting on Wednesday, Longley said Noyes stood by her decision to reinstate the demoted captain.
“A question was directed to the town manager which asked, ‘Are you standing behind your decision to reverse the action of the chief and effectively usurping his decision and power of authority?’ Her final answer was she had made her decision, it was final. If individuals did not care for her determination they were free to do other things,” wrote Longley in his letter.
Longley also wrote that selectmen admitted that the town manager issued a directive to the board to have no contact with firefighters or the fire department previous to the meeting on Wednesday. He also said one selectman, who didn’t want to be named, told Longley he had been “chewed out” for making contact with the fire department after the walkout.
“The prematurely released policy allows for an individual to lodge a complaint directly to the town manager or an authority above their immediate supervisor. So why then did the envelope (containing written concerns from firefighters hand delivered to the town manager and then handed to the select board at a later date, who in turn denied the attempt) disappear?” Longley wrote.
Longley said that in his view, the authority of the fire chief had been compromised and wrote that he thought the situation would lead to a vote of no confidence against the town.
“This breach will lead to a vote of no confidence to one or all the parties involved. The firefighters have voiced their opinions and backed it with action. The firefighters stand with and behind the chief,” Longley wrote.
Longley said in an interview Thursday that the only way to reconcile and reinstate the force would be to allow firefighters to mount complaints through the Select Board, out of the reach of the town manager and the human resources manager. In his letter, Longley reiterated that stance, adding that the chief needed the space to be able to do his job.
“What would be an ideal solution? Let the chief do his job; I would rather face the consequences of doing what is right versus the consequences of accepting what we know to be wrong, and risk accepting the liability and safety to all for those actions. Integrity is everything,” wrote Longley.
As for the firefighters who stepped down this week, Blaquiere said Thursday that he did not accept their resignations.
“I’m not accepting their resignations,” he said. “We have a full staff here, and if the bell goes off, we will respond.”
The entire Paris Fire Department will meet behind closed doors with selectmen, Noyes and Andrews at 6 p.m. Monday at the Town Office on Church Street. Longley said the meeting is mandatory for all members of the fire department, including the ones who resigned. The selectmen are Chairman Rusty Brackett, Vice Chairman Christopher Summers, Peter Kilgore, Carlton Sprague and Scott McElravy.
The Paris Fire Department moved from a paid, per diem department to a volunteer force after voting at the June 17, 2017, town meeting to cut the fire department budget by $145,629. They have a roster of about 30 volunteers.
Longley, chief at the time of the transition, said he was tasked with restructuring the fire department, and Blaquiere, deputy chief at the time, was “very much responsible for accomplishing this task handed to us by the citizens,” according to an email Longley sent on Saturday.
“Since that vote, the Paris Fire Department has rebuilt the call force, taken on new members and trained them to the standards outlined in NFPA 1001, standards for a professional fire fighter. Collectively, they have responded to numerous emergencies and have received nothing but praise,” Longley wrote.
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