By Leslie H. Dixon
OXFORD — A petition is circulating calling for the fire chief’s position to be changed from an appointed full-time position to an elected, three-year term.
Town Clerk Beth Olsen confirmed that Fire Capt. Shawn Cordwell requested the petition be worded as follows, “Shall the Town Vote to change the Fire Chiefs Position from an Appointed Full Time position to an Elected Position to serve a term of 3 years. Meeting specific job qualifications set forth by the selectman, To be voted on at a special town meeting a time a place to be determined by the selectman.”
Olsen said the petition must be submitted with signatures of registered voters equaling 10 percent of the numbers in the last gubernatorial race, which was 2014.
“We had 2,230 voters at this current gubernatorial race, so 223 signatures will be needed,” she said.
The action follows the resignation of Fire Chief Wayne Jones and the investigation into a department lieutenant who successfully spearheaded the drive to oust the fire chief.
Lt. Mark Blaquiere confirmed on Thursday, Dec. 8, that he has been placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of an investigation into the break-in of his former chief’s office sometime lthe week before.
He said he would not be making a further statement at this time.
Jones submitted his resignation Tuesday, Dec. 6, after he was handed a two-page “letter of no confidence” from the Fire Department citing numerous issues, including ignoring safety concerns, refusal to help drive the equipment, lack of communication skills and creating an environment of low morale and other issues. The letter was unsigned, but Blaquiere said it was from the entire membership.
Deputy Chief David Heidrich was appointed acting fire chief by Interim Town Manager Rebecca Lippincott on Wednesday, Dec. 7. Heidrich said Jones is not expected to return to work before Saturday, Dec. 31, his last official day of work.
This is the second time in the past few years, firefighters have expressed concern about whether the chief’s position would be appointed or elected.
In June 2014, annual town meeting voters approved the change from an elected position to an appointed one on a 242-131 vote.
In October of that year, half dozen members of the Fire Department presented selectmen with a letter urging the board to hire then-Fire Chief Scott Hunter when the position changed from an elected to an appointed one. The letter was signed by 32 firefighters and rescue personnel.
Hunter, who was elected to a seat on the Board of Selectmen that year, was not appointed. Instead, then-Town Manager Micheal Chammings appointed Wayne Jones as chief. Hunter told the Sun Media Group at the time that he and Chammings were at odds over Hunter’s multiple attempts to enforce safety standards.
While the petition circulates, the investigation into a break-in at the fire chief’s office late last month is ongoing.
Police Chief Jonathan Tibbetts said last week that he could neither confirm nor deny an investigation is ongoing, but Heidrich confirmed had he had been told by Lippincott that an investigation is underway.
Lippincott said Wednesday, Dec. 14, that a discussion about Fire Department issues begun during an executive session Tuesday, December 13 will continue in executive session Thursday, December 15. She declined to comment further on the issues at this time.
Blaqueiere told the Advertiser Democrat on Dec. 6 that reports that Jones’ office was “packed up” while he was on vacation the week before were accurate but he did not know who did it, nor was he involved in the action.
“All we know is that it happened,” he said.
Blaquiere said when Jones returned from vacation he complained about the action to department members. Blaquiere said he does not know if the chief keeps his office locked and he does not have a key to the office.
Heidrich said he is continuing to use his own office and had not accessed the chief’s office so could not tell what state it was in when he arrived. Officers all have keys to their own office but in general no one else in the department would be able to access the officers’ offices.
Blaquiere has been vocal about the former chief. On Dec. 6 he told the Advertiser Democrat that there is no communication between the chief, who he said leaves memos on the memo board rather than talking to his department, refuses to help drive the equipment, which he should do as a “working” fire chief, and refuses to address safety issues, among other issues.
“We can do the job without him. He’s not our chief,” said Blaquiere referring to Jones.
Blaquiere told the Advertiser Democrat prior to the appointment of the acting chief, that the Fire Department will be run by senior members starting with the lieutenant, captain and deputy chief.
“We are not taking orders from him anymore. We don’t care if he sits in his office,” said Blaquiere.
This is the second attempt in a year to remove the fire chief. Members of the department issued another “Letter of No Confidence” signed by seven department officers that was given to Jones in January 2016. That letter cited a lack of local knowledge and communication and accused him of putting the firefighters in danger because he takes too long to make decisions.
At least six members of the department quit because they didn’t want to work under the chief, Oxford firefighter Pvt. Zac Creps told the Advertiser Democrat at the time.
Heidrich said three members of the department left their gear at his door on his first day, Dec. 7, while he was meeting with his officers. He hoped to speak to them and convince them to return to the department.