Locked-Out Maine Firemen Say Flap Not Over

DETROIT -- Effectively barred from office and still locked out of the fire station, fire chief David Wright said Thursday the firefighters' dispute with Detroit Council of Selectmen is far from ended.

An ongoing, 10-year power struggle between the town's selectmen and its firefighters hit an all-time high Wednesday when selectmen locked firefighters out of the station. Their action followed a Tuesday evening action in which Detroit residents passed a referendum that took the power of appointing a fire chief away from the firefighters and placed it in the hands of the selectmen.

The 31 votes that the firefighters scraped together were no match for the 113 other citizens, who showed up to the town meeting that night and voted them down, passing the referendum. They were fed up with a system that had enabled a single family to dominate the fire department in spite of repeated, alleged violations of the law, according to selectman Joe Schissler.

Schissler said the selectmen received numerous complaints that Wright, who does not hold a license, posed a safety and liability risk when driving the fire trucks. Wright said the charges are false, and denied ever driving the fire trucks. Further, he said, the referendum does not spell the end for his stint as fire chief. The fire fighters met later last night for a private huddle, Wright said, but he doesn't "dare say a darn word" about their plans for action.

Although he remained cagey about specifics, Wright tossed out a broad hint:

"They ain't getting rid of me," he said. "How do you fire a volunteer fire department? How can they fire you without giving a reason?"

But the selectmen remained stalwart in their decision yesterday, bolstered by the majority vote and accompanying power shift. They said the new arrangement is what Detroit residents want, and what's more, it's what they've wanted for a long time.

This was not the first time they have put the matter to a vote. The issue has simmered for roughly 10 years, said Joseph Cianchette chairman of the selectmen. The selectmen called a vote on nearly the same referendum eight or nine years ago, and the firefighters stomped it down, packing the house with a constant dozen or so town council attendees, he said. Then, three or four years later, the selectmen again tried to pass the referendum, and the firefighters squelched it. Both attempts were foiled by slim margins.

But Tuesday, after nearly a decade of attempts, the referendum passed without a hitch and with a huge majority of votes. What made the difference?

Schissler said that, in the past as in most town meetings, citizens voted in public by raising their hands to be counted. This last vote was a secret ballot. Citizens were able to vote without the constant pressure of the firefighters, Schissler said.

"I wouldn't use the word 'intimidation'," he said. "It's that [the firefighters] are their neighbors. And people don't want to get into a fight or argument at a town meeting. Most people are trusting and quiet."

Schissler said the selectmen take the responsibility and blame for not having made this move sooner. The selectmen may meet tonight to make a final decision as to the employment status of their fire chief. If they do not meet tonight, they will do so some time next week, according to Cianchette.