No Change to Fire Chief’s Position Despite Rumors

CHESTER – A confusing selectmen’s meeting on Friday Sept. 6 was the result of one selectman taking on an independent investigation as to whether it made sense to change the fire chief’s position from full time to part time. Fire chief Rich Antoine heard about the investigation through a town official, he said, and met with the full board in an attempt to expose what was being done behind the scenes.

Friday’s meeting didn’t bring the specifics of the matter to light or help the public understand what took place, what the board knew about the matter and whether it should be defined as a rumor or not. Board members in the know refused to speak publicly.
Antoine stated that it had been a stressful week, concern over the status of his employment forefront in his mind.
Chair of the board Steph Landau did most of the talking Friday, taking various stances on the issue. He confirmed that a selectman was looking into “restructuring”, denied that the board had anything to do with it, told Antoine repeatedly to disregard rumors and ultimately affirmed that the matter being dealt with was not strictly a rumor.
The chair prefaced his remarks by stating that Chester was full of unfounded rumors but then confirmed the “rumor” at hand by stating that a selectman was looking into reorganization of “some of the departments.” Landau gave his OK to that investigation, he said, but was not forthcoming when describing any specifics or even naming a department when pressed by Antoine.
But Landau was adamant that the matter was not brought before the board or discussed by the members together, and therefore should be disregarded as unfounded.
Landau also said that if an employee’s position is affected at any time “I’ll be sure to bring that person right into the program.”
Landau spent a lot of time talking around the issue, but was quick to deny most of Antoine’s questions and attempts to find out more about what truly happened, making the matter difficult to follow, as he both denied and affirmed what had happened depending on the question asked.
“So is a person on this board discussing restructuring?” asked Antoine.
“I have no idea because we didn’t discuss it,” said Landau.
“But you just said you okayed it,” said Antoine, in a type of exchange that occurred more than once during the discussion.
Another exchange:
“So is this purely a rumor?” asked Antoine after Landau urged him to ignore rumors.
“I didn’t say that,” said Landau. “I said don’t listen to rumors.”
The only selectman that sought for a public clarification on the matter was Jack Cannon, but he was unsuccessful with his attempts.
Landau repeatedly asked Antoine if he would like to go into non-public but those offers were declined. Landau prohibited the public from speaking on the matter. Several fire department officers were on hand.
The board, or a member of the board, asked for police presence at the meeting.
It was vocally agreed to by all selectmen, except Joe Castricone, that the board was not actively looking to do anything with the fire chief’s position, but should they ever so decide, the chief would be in on those discussions.
Castricone is the liaison to the fire department but said nothing during the meeting.
At no time did the person who may be looking into the matter affirm that they were doing so, despite attempts from Cannon and the fire chief for that person to be accountable to their actions.
Selectman Rich LeBlanc stated that because the selectmen say they haven’t done anything, then Antoine should consider the “case closed” and move on.
Selectmen agreed that while members may individually investigate issues they feel are important, or which might save the town money, this does not mean that the board has discussed the issue or is in agreement with the thesis an individual is investigating.
A previous board had discussed the issue in non-public, with Antoine involved, but according to both Antoine and the current members of the board by the end of that discussion the matter was deemed dead, as it was deemed illogical to alter the position
Antoine was hired initially as a full time captain, the chief’s role was originally a stipend position.
Though Landau insisted on discussing the matter of rumors and whether or not they should be heeded, Cannon was not amenable to that defense. Cannon stepped in more than once to say that no one disagreed with Landau on the rumor idea, but that the matter at hand was something entirely different.
“Nobody is reputing that,” said Cannon. “But it doesn’t excuse the fact that it was said. I’m looking for ownership and accountability for that. That’s the only way to stop this.”
More than once Cannon urged the board member who caused the problem to be accountable and state why they discussed the issue publicly.
No answer came.
Landau again took center stage, but eventually Antoine stated that he was skirting the issue and the person who caused it.
Landau then talked about how the board’s responsibility was to handle town finances and be responsible to them. And then repeated that the board had never discussed the matter.
Cannon stated that what Landau was saying had already been established, but that it didn’t prove that the matter wouldn’t have eventually been brought to the board.
Cannon stressed that the issue at hand was the inappropriateness of a member of the board speaking publicly about a matter concerning a town employee.
“If an individual member (investigates a position) they should keep their mouth shut or bring the fire chief under the tent,” said Cannon. “If we get some accountability this matter will end.”
Cannon further stated that while all town officials and department heads deal with rumors on a daily basis, those rumors typically start from outside the selectmen’s room. Cannon noted that Antoine often has to deal with rumors about his department but that it should never come from the selectmen, his employer, as such is highly unprofessional.
Antoine agreed with Cannon’s assessment, but eventually conceded that he was not going to get any accountability.
“We all know what’s going on, but we’re not going to say anything. I get it,” said Antoine.
Landau sought for Antoine and the individual selectman to hash out the matter outside of the meeting, but Antoine stated that he doesn’t work for a single selectman.
Selectman Joe Hagan summed up the matter by stating that the board would never consider acting on a person’s position without that shareholder being in on the process. He stated that he was sorry Antoine had a difficult time over the week, because it’s a big deal when you think your job may be in jeopardy. At the same time Hagan stated that board members occasionally undertake independent investigations and the board would not stop doing that when it was appropriate.
At the end of the discussion road agent Mike Oleson stated that the rumor mill in Chester was bad enough without the selectmen getting involved. He urged the members to keep quiet in the future because such actions can cause numerous problems for employees.

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