Tilton-Northfield fire chief could lose job because of Ashland address
Tilton-Northfield Fire and EMS Chief Brad Ober (right) and Capt. Tim Joubert assess the scene of a fatal fire at 35 Granite Street in Northfield on Friday, February 10, 2012. (Greg Lindstrom/Monitor Staff) Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »
As of Wednesday, the Tilton-Northfield Fire & EMS Department is poised to be without a chief and any apparent plan for finding a new one, after almost a year’s worth of arguing over a residency requirement.
Chief Bradley Ober, who lives in Ashland, has already been handed his pink slip for failing to meet a residency requirement that was part of an initial employment agreement he signed in November 2010. He has not moved because he has not been able to sell his house and does not want to take a financial loss, according to minutes from fire commission meetings. Ober did not respond to requests for comment.
The three-person fire commission, which governs the department, is split on the issue, with one member saying the requirement is unclear and should be waived and the other two maintaining that it is legally binding. Townspeople, selectmen and firefighters have also voiced concerns over the last several months, testifying to Ober’s success as chief and dedication to the communities.
Ober, who started at the department in 2004, was hired as chief in November 2010. Upon his hiring, he signed a letter of employment stating, “It is the expectation of the board that within 18 months of accepting this position you will reside within the fire district. The exact boundaries will be discussed and decided upon within the near future,” according to fire commission meeting minutes from Feb. 15. The final moving date was set for June 2012.
At some point, the fire commissioners made the decision to extend that date to Jan. 2, 2013. It is unclear from meeting minutes when that happened. Fire Commission Chairman Pat Clark said he is withholding comment on the advice from his attorney.
In February, Clark made a move to define the district as within 5.5 miles of the station on Center Street in Tilton, but after objections were raised – including by Commissioner Tom Gallant – that requirement was set aside. In an April 30 meeting, Clark said the residency requirement is within the confines of Tilton or Northfield.
And at the annual meeting in March, several voters made a motion to eliminate the residency requirement. That motion was ultimately tabled after several voters expressed concern that the decision should be left to the commissioners.
Clark cites a 1993 Supreme Court case, Seabrook Police Association v. Town of Seabrook, in which the court ruled it is legal to require police officers to live within a certain distance of the station. In addition to that ruling, Clark has cited 12 reasons for why the residency requirement is important, including quicker response time, greater connections to the community, and the high incident rate, according to minutes from a March 7 meeting.
But in meetings over the past year, residents, town officials and Gallant have taken issue with several of those provisions, chiefly response time and investment in the community.
In that March 7 meeting, Gallant said arbitrary distance requirements would do little to improve response time. For example, if the 5.5-mile radius ruling had been imposed, that would have included remote areas of Sanbornton and Canterbury, which would have required traveling time similar to what Ober requires now. Using the highway, it takes Ober just more than 20 minutes to get to work, according to meeting minutes.
In addition, Ober is already heavily invested in both communities despite his residence in Ashland, said Pat Consentino, chairwoman of Tilton’s board of selectmen.
“He’s so community oriented,” she said. “His ties are really here even though he doesn’t live here.”
Members of the firefighters union also expressed concern with the requirement, and read those concerns in a letter to the commissioners at an April 30 meeting.
“One of Chief Ober’s greatest strengths is that he allows us to do our job and provides guidance when needed. The residency requirement of 5.5 miles would not change this,” reads a letter from the Tilton-Northfield Professional Firefighters Association.
That letter also said uncertainty in the department could cause some firefighters to leave and look for other jobs. Although that letter was written in April, those concern still holds, Consentino said.
“We’re so afraid that if Brad leaves, somebody will follow; and if somebody follows, if one or two follow, it’ll be people that are EMT trained,” she said in an interview this week.
Since the news media began reporting on the issue earlier this month, Clark has declined to comment, and there is no clear plan for what will happen if Ober leaves Jan. 2. Commissioners last publicly discussed the issue at a Nov. 14 meeting. At that meeting, Ober said no one had come to look at his house since it had been put on the market. He also said the department will not have an appropriate command structure to ensure a smooth transition come Jan. 2.
Clark asked if there were any backup or retired personnel in the area that could fill in, and asked if Deputy Michael Robinson or Fire Prevention Chief Tim Joubert could step into that role. Robinson, who was at the meeting, said he would not be able to fulfill all of Ober’s duties and that Joubert would likely not be able to either.
Clark said he did not know if it was even appropriate to be discussing plans before Jan. 2. To that, Ober responded his situation has not changed, he cannot sell his house, and that the commissioners are responsible for finding a chief if and when he leaves.
A previous version of this article misstated the day Ober will lose his job if he doesn’t meet the residency requirement. That day is Wednesday, Jan. 2.