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Charter eclipses authority of ’strong chief’ Promotion for Grimley comes day after election

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TOWNSEND — Fire Chief William Donahue wanted to promote Lt. Michael Grimley to the rank of captain within the Fire Department, but the move met with opposition from the town charter.

Mass. General Law chapter 48, section 42, gives fire chiefs the power to appoint members of their department and is commonly known as the “strong chief” statute.

”The strong chief clause says I can promote, but the town charter says I cannot,” Donahue said.

Donahue submitted Grimley’s promotion on April 25, the day after Daniel Murphy lost his seat on the Board of Selectmen to Maureen Denig.

Donahue said Murphy’s loss at the polls had nothing to do with the promotion timing. The department has an opening for a captain, and Grimley has been an acting captain for the past year, he said.

”This was brought up at our officer’s meeting, which happened to be the night after the election,” Chief Donahue said. “One of my other officers had the idea to just promote Mike to captain, since he’s been doing the work and the job anyway. I need the position filled, so it just seemed the best way to go about it.”

Town administrator Gregory Barnes said the promotion must be discussed with selectmen, as the charter overrules the strong chief statute.

”We will have to address this as soon as possible,” Barnes said, adding that two recent legal opinions give the charter precedence over the state law.

One opinion, received from former town counsel June Riddle, states the strong chief statute gives the chief the authority to appoint firefighters, but the charter grants that authority to the selectmen.

Riddle wrote, “It leads me to the logical conclusion that the charter repealed the strong chief law indirectly by implication.”

The other legal opinion, from Theresa Dowd of the law firm Kopelman and Paige, expresses the same finding as Riddle.

”In my opinion, the charter prevails over the strong chief law,” Dowd wrote.

Donahue said he currently has an active roster of 18 firefighters but he needs 40 to run his department effectively.

Grimley was promoted to lieutenant in October 2003, and has been an on-call firefighter since December of 1985. He is the only full-time firefighter in town, along with the chief. His job duties include responding to fires, rescues and medical emergencies, performing oil burner and smoke detector inspections, maintaining and repairing fire apparatus and equipment, maintaining the grounds of the stations, presenting fire-prevention education classes to local school children, and overseeing paint recycling and re-use programs for the Board of Health.

Donahue said Grimley’s promotion will hopefully be resolved at the Thursday night selectmen’s meeting.

”I thought (the promotion) was the route to go, then fill the lieutenant’s position, but we’ll have to wait and see,” Chief Donahue said.