Warwick Selectboard, Fire Department at odds over ‘strong chief’ status

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    With Warwick Fire Chief Ron Gates preparing to retire, the Selectboard is discussing the possibility of changing the town’s “strong chief” status. Staff File Photo/Shelby Ashline

Staff Writer
Published: 6/19/2020 2:22:22 PM
Modified: 6/19/2020 2:22:10 PM

WARWICK — With the current fire chief preparing to retire, the Selectboard is discussing the possibility of changing the town’s “strong chief” status, potentially at the risk of losing firefighters.

During a Selectboard meeting earlier this week, the board and Fire Chief Ron Gates, who will retire June 30, weighed pros and cons of the Massachusetts General Law that provides a strong chief with singular authority over a fire department. By comparison, a “weak chief” needs the Selectboard to approve some of the decisions he or she makes for the department.

“I would have to say I need some convincing that the strong chief option is really good for the town,” Selectboard Chair Lawrence “Doc” Pruyne said Monday.

Gates, on the other hand, said he is “utterly against” removing the strong chief title. Any chief hired under the strong chief law is granted full authority in the administration of his or her fire department. This control includes hiring and establishment of rules and regulations. If the town were to have a weak chief, the Fire Department would need some decisions to be approved by the Selectboard, which typically only meets every other week.

“The chief can’t run a department if he’s not a strong chief,” Gates said. “Basically the Selectboard would be controlling the department. Nothing against the selectmen, but they’re not fire officers.”

Gates also said if there is no strong chief title, it gives the Selectboard power to fire or remove the acting chief at any point. A strong chief can only be removed for “cause,” while a weak chief can be removed “at will.” During Monday’s meeting, Gates said he “had a difficult time” when he was first brought on as chief as some people tried to have him fired. Without the strong chief status in place, and guidance from the Franklin County Fire Chiefs’ Association, Gates said he could have been removed from the position.

“They couldn’t find a reason to get rid of me, so they couldn’t do it,” Gates said. “The only reason they couldn’t do it was because I was a strong chief, otherwise I wouldn’t have had nine great years as the chief.”

Selectboard member Brian Snell said the position’s security is one of the strong chief law’s main aspects. However, Snell also said other towns in Massachusetts and other states are trending away from this status because they want more transparency and accountability from fire chiefs when it comes to budgeting, recruitment and training.

Gates said he has done his best to be transparent with the Selectboard.

“I’m looking out for the interests of the department,” Gates said.

Snell noted the inquiries weren’t meant to be taken as a critique, but the Selectboard is weighing the benefits going forward under a new chief.

Selectboard member Todd Dexter said the board will continue interviewing candidates for the fire chief position. The Selectboard will also continue to deliberate, and the decision to renew or change the strong chief status may be brought to a vote at Annual Town Meeting on July 18.

While he’s retiring as chief, Gates said he plans to stay with the department as a firefighter — unless the strong chief status is removed. Though he noted he can’t speak definitively for other members of the Warwick Fire Department, Gates claimed the consensus among members is they will all leave if the change is passed.

Zack DeLuca can be reached at zdeluca@recorder.com or 413-930-4579.

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