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Discord continues in Erving fire chief search

Finalists named, but current chief didn’t make the cut

ERVING — The controversy surrounding the position of fire chief and its current occupant continues, with current chief Almon D. “Bud” Meattey Jr. not included among the finalists for the job.

A search committee appointed to winnow down the field of applicants for the part-time, approximately $13,000 position of chief of the department — and its two stations — presented two finalists, but the possibility that either will become chief has diminished.

With Selectman Eugene Klepadlo sidelined by a conflict of interest, responsibility falls to the remaining two selectmen, Chairman Andrew Goodwin and Margaret Sullivan, who are divided on the issue. With only two voting, unanimity is required.

Firefighters in the audience presented the issue as one of a rift between the town’s two fire stations, and the board eventually voted to hire a mediator for the department, to research Goodwin’s proposal for an alternative form of governance and to continue forward with interviews for the two finalists, all in the time before Meattey’s recent interim reappointment expires next month.

Christopher Blair, chairman of the nine-member search committee and the town police chief, submitted the recommendations via a letter read out at Monday’s meeting. Following interviews and a vote, the finalists are Mitchell LaClaire Sr. of 19 Forest St. and Phillip Wonkka of 10 Moore St.

LaClaire is a former Erving fire chief, Wonkka became first deputy chief in 2011.

Following the announcement, Goodwin proposed the board institute a board of engineers to govern the department and appoint Meattey as chief in the meantime, and was initially opposed to moving forward with interviews for the two finalists.

Goodwin said he does not know what the process for instituting such a board would be and has asked the town lawyer to look into it, but the concept involves a board appointed by the selectmen that is responsible for all aspects of Fire Department governance, including selecting the chief and officers.

“If we were to make a change and appoint a different chief or the same chief, I think history is going to keep repeating itself, the problems are going to keep occurring and they’re going to continue bubbling up to Town Hall, where we’re getting politics involved,” Goodwin said.

Goodwin said this approach would allow the firefighters themselves to be responsible for their own leadership.

The proposal represents a departure from the current process, which Goodwin said he opposed in the first place. Goodwin said the board voted a year ago to notify the chief they wanted to negotiate a contract, but the process has changed since. “I think the board is reneging on something we told somebody,” Goodwin said.

Jacquelyn Boyden, a resident and Town Hall employee, said it would be difficult to find enough volunteers for the proposed board and membership would be a conflict of interest for current firefighters. She also questioned Goodwin’s motives in proposing the change — Goodwin later said he supports Meattey — as well as the precedent that would be set by ignoring the search committee.

Sullivan proposed mandatory mediation for all members of the Fire Department, to be conducted by a professional mediator, saying she thinks the department is severely divided and she would like to hear both sides of the story.

“Why create another board that’s going to be struggling with the same thing we’re struggling with?” Sulivan said. “If they can’t resolve their issues from within, then what’s the sense?”

A man who identified himself as a captain and 13-year member, but who later refused to give his name for attribution, said the department is in a state of “Station 1 vs. Station 2,” and members need the leadership question resolved immediately or many will leave.

You can reach Chris Curtis at:
ccurtis@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 257

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