By Don Eriksson
PEPPERELL — Selectmen have scheduled an unusual Saturday morning meeting with firefighters to renew talks about replacing the Board of Fire Engineers, that has run the Fire Department for more than 150 years, with a “strong” chief.
The meeting is posted for Saturday, March 17, at 10 a.m. in Town Hall.
A warrant article at last fall’s town meeting that would allow, but not obligate, selectmen to adopt Chapter 48, Section 42 of Massachusetts General Law was passed over. The law puts the selection of a fire chief, the setting of the chief’s salary, and removal decisions in the hands of the selectmen.
The board had supported the idea before town meeting. But after listening to a room full of firefighters they said they also wanted firefighters and town administrator Robert Hanson to discuss setting limitations to a strong chief’s powers.
Hanson said this week the warrant article was passed over because, three hours prior to town meeting, labor counsel told him any effort to modify the regulation to address the concerns of rank-and-file firefighters is not legally workable. The state law would have to be accepted in its entirety, or not at all.
State law grants a fire chief absolute authority to administer the department, set pay rates subject to selectmen’s approval, and to appoint deputy chiefs or officers.
At their October meeting, firefighters told selectmen they are “nervous” about the strong chief idea. Firefighters currently select from within their own ranks for promotion to lieutenant and captain.
Fire Chief Costa Bozicas, who is retiring April 1, acknowledged that firefighters historically oppose change, but assured the room that although a strong chief could overrule company-chosen officers, doing so would be foolish without first accepting their input.
“I want to make it clear there is no need for concern,” Bozicas said. “This is long overdue. It’s ridiculous that we have to have a posted meeting (of the fire engineers) to vote to move a siren, because of the requirements of the Open Meeting Law.” Day-to-day decisions could be made by a “strong” chief without a meeting or prior approval.
“Sometimes it’s like pulling teeth to get people to train and this would give more incentive to train for promotions. At my level, decisions could be made much more quickly and easily and the department be more efficient,” Bozicas said.
“The chief could be anyone. It would give you a bigger pot to choose from and could save the town on liability. I know there are members against this, but I’ve always felt that if you’re an officer doing a good job you have nothing to worry about,” he said.
Deputy fire chief and fire engineer Toby Tyler agreed with the chief, but deputy chief and fire engineer Peter Shattuck shaded his response more toward a firefighter’s perspective.
“We have a great bunch of guys who pick their members. I don’t want to see that disappear,” Shattuck said.
He said a new chief may cost more money because Bozicas chose to accept a captain’s pay when he assimilated former Capt. Ron Winch’s job into his chief’s duties. Shattuck also sees the need for more secretarial hours because the next chief may try to do much of the work himself.
“I don’t want anyone to feel I don’t think they’re doing the job,” Shattuck said.
“This isn’t a social club,” Bozicas said. “We should have the best people and be the best qualified.”
Hanson had suggested “finagling” the strong chief’s appointment-making capability to allow each fire company to continue to select their officers subject to the veto of the chief.
“The reason here is to dissolve the board of engineers, not the companies,” Bozicas said. “Companies can talk all day without violating the law. I can’t talk to an engineer outside of a meeting.”