By Keith Regan, Contributing Writer
Westborough—Town Meeting voted Oct. 19 to retain the strong fire chief statute, defeating a proposal made by the Board of Selectmen to bring the oversight of the department into line with police and other departments.
A “strong chief” creates department rules and policies and has absolute authority. A “weak chief,” creates regulations but then brings them to the board of selectmen for approval. Westborough approved a strong fire chief (but not a strong police chief) in 1968.
The article was defeated by a vote of 99 in favor and 134 against after more than an hour of debate.
Selectman Ian Johnson said the board made the proposal now because the change can only be made when the chief’s seat is vacant. (Walter “Nick” Perron retired in July.) Selectmen are expected to soon hire a new fire chief after interviews with two finalists, both from inside the department.
“It’s about consistency, accountability, oversight and checks and balances,” said Johnson. “We thought this was an opportunity for the town to think about whether we want to pull the fire chief in line with other key personnel.”
Johnson said the main argument in favor of the strong chief model is to buffer the public safety department from politics, but said the town’s track record shows that department heads are treated with autonomy and given the authority to run their departments. Several town officials, including Police Chief Alan Gordon and Department of Public Works Director John Walden said they have run their departments for years without interference.
“They put full authority in me to run my department,” Gordon said, adding there is “absolutely no micromanaging.”
More than a dozen people spoke on the issue before the vote, including both Westborough and out-of-town firefighters and former selectmen who assured voters that board members would have no time and no inclination to insert themselves into the daily operations of the department.
Former Selectman Leigh Emery said her experience is that selectmen have “very little interest in getting involved in the day to day operations of any department.” But she argued that it didn’t make sense to give one department head autonomy and power ahead of his peers in the police department and Department of Public Works.
“This may be the only chance we may have next in the next 25 years to do this,” she said.
Perron spoke against the change, saying the town has had good success with just four chiefs serving in the role for the past 47 years. He said the concern that the strong chief essentially creates a lifetime appointment by not having a contract limit—the police chief and others are appointed for three-year terms—are misguided, as a chief can still be fired anytime for cause.
“Why do we want to change something that is not broke?” Perron said. “Let’s let the professional fire chief run his department.”
Richard Golden, president of the local firefighters union, was critical of selectmen for proposing the change without consulting firefighters or former chiefs.
Voters took up the article after a motion to take it out of out of order passed with the necessary two-thirds vote, bringing the issue before voters at 9:20 p.m., ahead of about a dozen other articles.
Outside the meeting, members of the town’s fire department union handed out informational brochures urging voters to defeat the article, which said in part, referring to the selectmen: “Although very professional in their capacity, these individuals do not have an understanding or knowledge of the fire service necessary to effectively run the department.”