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Bow selectmen meeting turns heated over talk of a full-time fire chief

Tension erupted at a Bow Board of Selectmen meeting last night over residents’ concerns that the board would hire a full-time fire chief, and general confusion seemed to fuel frustration.

The selectmen said at the outset that they weren’t discussing or voting on whether to make a hire during the meeting, which drew so many people that not everyone could fit into the room. However, residents still voiced concerns about the process.

After a lengthy discussion with fire fighters in attendance, the board decided to meet with the fire department before it votes on whether to pay an outside consultant to evaluate the department’s organizational efficiency.

At issue, the selectmen said, is figuring out the best way for the fire department to provide services to residents in the most cost-effective way.

The fire department has the town’s third-largest annual operating budget, after the public works and police departments, at $1.2 million.

Both fire Chief Dana Abbott and Assistant Chief Dick Pistey are part time, and the department’s captain works a regular shift of 24 hours on and 48 off, said Town Manager David Stack. One concern is that the department doesn’t have administrative consistency, he said.

During the discussion, Selectman Harry Judd said an independent study could help the department manage its needs as it grows. “It’s studying equipment we have . . . does that match up with needs of community?” Judd said.

Attendees from the fire department said they can help with that.

“Sit down around the big table and talk things out, you might better understand where we are coming from,” said Ted Bardwell, a longtime volunteer firefighter with the department. “Don’t spend $12,000 to find out what you’re going to find out from us.”

“I’m not against the study, but you have to tread softly,” Pistey said.

“That’s why we want to look at it carefully,” said selectmen Chairwoman Jill Hadaway. “We don’t want to jump into anything that will backfire on us.”

Before that resolution, which was reached toward the end of the more than three-hour meeting, several attendees said during the public comment period that a full-time hire would go against the wishes of residents, who voted down a warrant article on the matter at this year’s town meeting.

“At a town meeting you get pure democracy,” said Chuck Douglas, chairman of the Concerned Taxpayers of Bow, which alerted group members on its website about last night’s meeting. “I think the voters spoke, and that should be honored,” he said.

The selectmen said the town voted on whether to give the hiring authority to the town manager, not to decide whether the town would hire a full-time chief. And, Hadaway said, a recent legal opinion from the town attorney showed that the board hadn’t actually needed to take that issue before voters.

“The town manager already has that authority,” she said, which selectmen said was established when the town voted for the town manager style of government in the 1980s.

“This is kind of under the table . . . hiring a fire chief when the town doesn’t want one,” resident Ken Swanson said.

Hadaway said the board had not planned to vote on any hiring decisions at the meeting. She addressed the room at the close of the public comment period.

“A lot of your anger toward what we have discussed as a board, we haven’t made any determinations to do any of these things yet,” she said.

(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or at amorris@cmonitor.com.)

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