With state decision pending, Northfield Selectboard talks fire chief position

By MARY BYRNE

Staff Writer

Published: 07-27-2023 1:13 PM

NORTHFIELD — While the town awaits the state’s decision on Fire Chief Floyd “Skip” Dunnell III’s requested employment extension, the Selectboard continued its discussion this week on how to establish a path forward in the case of his absence.

With Dunnell’s 65th birthday approaching in August, the age at which public safety officials are required to retire under Massachusetts law, the town is waiting to hear whether the state passes special legislation extending Dunnell’s position to Dec. 31, 2026 or the date of his retirement or non-reappointment, whichever occurs first. An act of the state Legislature can allow an individual more time in their field, something Annual Town Meeting attendees voted unanimously to pursue for Dunnell in May.

In the meantime, discussions have begun on how his role will be filled if needed, and whether that means hiring an interim or relying on the hierarchy system in place at the Fire Department.

Dunnell explained to the Selectboard Tuesday evening that the department has a “tier of leadership,” meaning there is a rank of officers “to take over in the absence of anyone.” The department functions in a democratic nature, he said, meaning it elects all its officers after an extensive training process. Additionally, training practices, as well as policy and procedure, are decided on by the whole. In other words, hiring an interim chief — in the event that legislation isn’t approved before Dunnell turns 65 — wouldn’t be necessary, he told Selectboard members.

“In my absence, everything would continue to flow as it always has,” he said. “We have a phenomenal Fire Department, and it’s not because of me. It’s because of the organization and the commitment we have from the individuals, and from our core of officers who make sure everything works the way it needs to work.”

The town bylaws pertaining to the Fire Department outline this process; however, some Selectboard members felt the bylaws — which were adopted at Town Meeting in 1942 — needed to be reviewed to ensure they are in compliance with modern Massachusetts employment law.

“We have to get up to speed on what your bylaws are, and I would want to know from town counsel [whether these] are supposed to be continually going in front of Town Meeting, like all the other bylaws, and is there anything where these need to line up with Mass. personnel and employee law?” said Selectboard member Barbara “Bee” Jacques. “This is a good time to double-check. … I want to make sure we’re doing our diligence.”

Members ultimately agreed to get a legal opinion on the bylaws before making any decisions about how to move forward.

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Dunnell noted that if the Selectboard opts to go the route of naming an interim, he asked that the department — as it normally would in the hiring practices — vote on the selection of that officer.

Chief’s job description

The discussion on Tuesday followed a discussion earlier this month, during which the Selectboard agreed to send a draft of the fire chief’s job description to the Fire Department for review.

At the time, the Selectboard emphasized that the search for an interim fire chief and Dunnell’s replacement must wait until the board hears whether the state passes a bill extending Dunnell’s position. According to malegislature.gov, the House of Representatives referred the bill to the Joint Committee on Public Service, which scheduled a hearing for the bill earlier this month. However, Selectboard members are unsure of when they will know the verdict.

The Selectboard also talked about creating a succession committee dedicated to screening applicants and hiring Dunnell’s replacement, with the exact timing depending on the verdict of the bill for Dunnell’s extension.

The plan to send the job description draft to the Fire Department follows Fire Lt. Rob Hunter asking the Selectboard to maintain communication with the department throughout the replacement process during the June 13 meeting. The Selectboard agreed with Hunter’s sentiment.

“Whatever we do, I just want to make sure the Fire Department is involved because they know what’s best for their department,” said Selectboard Chair Alex Meisner. “They’ve been doing this a long time, and given their reputation for incredible response time but also for the leadership and a command structure, that seems to be pretty squared away.”

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