May 02, 2012TILTON — Residency requirements for the chief of the Tilton-Northfield Fire and EMS continue to be the burning topic at commissioners' meetings, and this Monday night was no exception, as residents from both towns and approximately a dozen firefighters and EMS employees were on hand to listen to the discussion and voice their opinions.
In February, commissioners voted 2-1 to require that Chief Bradley Ober, who owns a home in Ashland, move within a 5.5-mile radius of the Central Street Station in Tilton. A petitioned warrant article at the district's March Annual Meeting asked the commission to change the requirement to a 25-mile limit from the station, but that article was eventually tabled, as it would have been advisory in nature, and not legally binding on the commissioners. Board Chairman Patrick Clark stated that evening that the commission would continue to look into residency, and that he felt perhaps a residency requirement based on response time, as had been suggested by Commissioner Thomas Gallant, might better suit the needs of the district.
On Monday night, Clark said legal counsel had told him the 5.5-mile restriction would not be allowable, as wording in a signed Letter of Employment between the district and the chief stated he would be required to move into the district, with no specific distance from the station mentioned.
"That's the way it stands right now — within the confines of the Tilton-Northfield boundaries — but that's just in conversation right now," said Clark.
Clark then allowed public comment on the topic, and Fire Prevention Captain Timothy Joubert of the Tilton-Northfield Professional Fire Fighters Local 4659 asked to read a prepared statement from the union.
In their letter, firefighters expressed their dismay over the "constant public debate" about residency requirements for the chief, and said the controversy has greatly affected the morale of the department. Patients, residents and colleagues around the region ask about the requirements on a daily basis, Joubert read, and the recurring question remains, "Why?" since there has never been an issue concerning Ober's job performance. The department members fear that Ober, who said he would lose a substantial amount of money should he sell his home at this time, could ultimately leave the district.
"With several positions opening up in the Lakes Region, members have been discussing the possibility of leaving due to the uncertainty of the district's future," Joubert read.
Deputy Chief Michael Robinson said the majority of the district's call firefighters appear to "mirror" thoughts contained within the union's statement.
After hearing all Joubert had read, Commissioner Paul Auger was concerned about the morale and job performance of the department.
"I hope this doesn't impact what you do each day," he said. "This isn't about you, it's about your chief."
Joubert assured him the members of the department are far too professional to allow the issue to override their performance.
Resident and chair of the Tilton Select Board, Pat Consentino, said the possibility of members of the department potentially leaving the district caused her grave concern.
"My concern is if, in fact, the chief leaves, and three or four other leave the department, it now becomes a safety issue," Consentino said. "What if those people are EMT's? Tilton has a vast majority of its population that are seniors."
She said she believed in some type of residency requirement, but questioned whether the board would like to take on another search for a chief and perhaps other staff members, or would they rather hold on to what they have, a chief who even Clark had previously stated has done a fine job.
Northfield resident Gretchen Wilder said she has many years experience in Human Resources and, while she respected the fire ighters for supporting their chief, "The fact of the matter is that he signed a document saying he would move within the district, and he should abide by that."
Fellow Northfield resident Lisa Swancott agreed.
"The quickest resolution is to abide by what you signed and move into the district," Swancott said.
Ober declined to respond to any of the comments.
Clark thanked the firefighters for their letter, and appreciated the input of all who spoke up at the meeting.
"This will all go into the decision making, believe me. Thank you very much," he said.
The board then briefly reviewed the 18-month time limit they had set to determine residency requirements for Ober, and came to the conclusion that they would still have until June 13 to either make a final decision or discuss whether or not to extend that deadline.
For their final action of the evening, Gallant made a motion to overturn the previously voted upon 5.5-mile residency requirement, and the motion passed unanimous