Townsend Firefighters yesterday publicly accused Selectman Daniel Murphy of conducting a "witch hunt" over Fire Chief John Collins' reputed anger issues.
"An increasing number of firefighters have started to question if they should be risking their life safety and quality of life of their families for an administration in town who does not support their efforts and has concentrated on personal vengeance," Townsend Fire Lt. Brian Borneman said, reading from a statement during a press conference outside the new fire station under construction on Route 119.
Borneman's comments came after a public hearing Tuesday where resident John Wilder accused Chief Collins of "accosting" him after a public meeting in April.
There is no witch hunt," said Murphy, who did not attend the press conference but responded to the firefighters' statement. "The hearing in reference was brought by a resident to the Board of Selectmen. I have always been strongly supportive of public safety, including the Fire Department."
Wilder had asked selectmen to "address and resolve" Collins' alleged anger management problems.
Collins threatened to resign several times during Tuesday's meeting and denied losing his temper with Wilder or having anger issues. Collins said the claims against him were humiliating and destructive to his reputation.
The hearing ended after Chief Collins apologized to Wilder and the two men shook hands.
"We thought it was resolved," said Carolyn Smart, Acting Town Administrator. "The board took no action and there was no vote for action."
Smart added the Board of Selectmen did not reprimand Chief Collins. But after the meeting, both Murphy and Smart said firefighters had stacked up fire gear behind Town Hall in a gesture that they were going to resign.
Smart said neither Collins nor any other firefighters have submitted formal resignations.
"Many people have called, concerned for their safety, but I've assured everybody that (the Fire Department is) fully operational," Smart said.
She said assistant Fire Chief Steven Richards is running the department, as is customary when Collins is out of the office.
Borneman confirmed that no firefighters had resigned yesterday.
Chief Collins could not be reached for comment yesterday. Selectmen Chairman Paul T. Concemi Sr. said Collins was out of town on a preplanned fishing trip.
The threatened resignation and fishing trip seem to have combined to spark confusion though. Smart said yesterday she was unsure of Collins' status, and Collins' office said he was not expected in yesterday or today, and was unsure when he would be back.
In their statement at yesterday's press conference, firefighters said a witness in Wilder's complaint was one of Selectman Murphy's daughters.
Murphy confirmed his daughter witnessed the disagreement between Wilder and Collins by chance.
"They need to keep the spotlight where it belongs on the fire chief," Murphy said. "That's where these problems started and that's where it should end."
Concemi, who attended the press conference, refused to comment on the firefighters' statement.
Concemi held a private meeting after the press conference with firefighters while standing in a circle in front of the new fire station, which is scheduled to open before July 1.
Selectman Peter Collins, no relation to the chief, also attended.
John Wilder will not pursue his complaint further with the Board of Selectmen, but he said he was concerned the board would not address the chief's alleged anger problems.
"I'm not confident that it will be resolved," Wilder said. "I want the board to address the anger issue. That's the main point."
Chief Collins previously faced a complaint regarding alleged anger management problems in August 2003, according to selectmen's executive session minutes.
At that point, a former Townsend firefighter claimed Collins verbally abused him for going over his head in a personnel matter.
Selectmen considered extending a six-month probation period because of the claim. In October they decided to decline the extension, but ordered Collins to enroll in an anger-management class.
Minutes from October 2003 state "the Chief agreed to enroll in some sort of anger/stress management classes, however, there were none available at this present time."
On Tuesday, Chief Collins said he had not attended such classes.
"There haven't been any classes offered," Concemi said yesterday.
But Wilder said the issue should be addressed immediately.
"Concemi does not show a sense of urgency (on the matter)," Wilder said. "As a taxpayer, I've put (the board) on warning. The town is at risk for at least one lawsuit."
Sun staff writer Jason Lefferts contributed to this report.