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Orford Fire Chief to Be Appointed

  • Orford Fire Chief Arthur Dennis argues for the Selectboard to not have the power to select a Fire Chief during the Orford Town Meeting at Rivendell Academy in Orford, N.H., on March 11, 2014. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap

    Orford Fire Chief Arthur Dennis argues for the Selectboard to not have the power to select a Fire Chief during the Orford Town Meeting at Rivendell Academy in Orford, N.H., on March 11, 2014.
    Valley News - Sarah Priestap Purchase photo reprints »

  • Orford Volunteer Fire Department Member Dave Smith advocates that the Fire Department is running fine without the guidance of the Selectboard during the Orford Town Meeting at Rivendell Academy in Orford, N.H., on March 11, 2014. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap

    Orford Volunteer Fire Department Member Dave Smith advocates that the Fire Department is running fine without the guidance of the Selectboard during the Orford Town Meeting at Rivendell Academy in Orford, N.H., on March 11, 2014.
    Valley News - Sarah Priestap Purchase photo reprints »

  • Orford Fire Chief Arthur Dennis argues for the Selectboard to not have the power to select a Fire Chief during the Orford Town Meeting at Rivendell Academy in Orford, N.H., on March 11, 2014. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap
  • Orford Volunteer Fire Department Member Dave Smith advocates that the Fire Department is running fine without the guidance of the Selectboard during the Orford Town Meeting at Rivendell Academy in Orford, N.H., on March 11, 2014. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap

Orford — Debates over the budget took a back seat this year as more than 200 residents attended Town Meeting Tuesday night to debate the Selectboard’s attempts to change how volunteers become members of Orford’s volunteer fire department.

At the heart of the debate was Article 13, which shifted authority over personnel policies from the fire department’s members to the Selectboard. Whereas in the past the chief was elected by members of the volunteer fire department, the warrant article called for voters to grant the Selectboard authority to appoint the fire chief and to set personnel policies the chief would be required to follow in naming members of the department.

Of the dozen people who came to the microphone to question and comment on the Selectboard’s proposal, Jim McGoff posed the questions that were on the mind of many residents: “Why do the selectmen want this?” and “Is the fire chief doing anything wrong?”

Selectman John Adams responded — by reading from a prepared statement — that the Selectboard simply wanted to appoint a fire chief such as it would appoint other positions in town, including the police chief and the road agent.

“We don’t want to run the fire department,” Adams said.

Instead, Adams said that the fire department has repeatedly failed to provide “appropriate administrative responses” to the Selectboard in a timely fashion. He said this has left the Selectboard unable to provide a proper accounting of departmental expenses and activities to the taxpayers who fund it.

Several people noted that members of the fire department are volunteers who put their lives on the line each time they respond to either a fire or medical emergency, and this forges a unique relationship among its members.

“There is a special trust and camaraderie among these men,” that the Selectboard may disrupt should it appoint the fire chief from outside of the department, said Faith Knapp.

Robert Palifka, a decades-long member of the budget committee, referred to Article 13 as a “power grab.”

Arthur Dennis, the fire chief who has been in office since 1990, contested the Selectboard’s assertion that he has not provided the town with accurate information about departmental expenses and hours worked.

“We are a volunteer organization,” Dennis said. “We don’t do this full time. (But) the Selectboard had all the information they needed in order to proceed with a budget.”

On the other side of the argument, two former members of the fire department rallied to the Selectboard’s defense, saying that voters need to set aside their emotions and allow the Selectboard to fix what Paul Goundrey called a “broken fire department.” Tim Cole referred to it as a “badly managed organization.” After a paper ballot, the Selectboard emerged victorious: by a vote of 104-85, the fire chief in Orford will now be an appointed position.

As dozens of people exited the meeting, discussion shifted to the proposed $964,307 municipal budget. It passed after five minutes of discussion. Under the direction of Moderator Peter Thomson, discussion and voting on the remaining 19 articles on the warrant proceeded at a swift pace.

Questions were raised as to whether it would be more cost-effective to purchase a previously owned rather than a new fire engine and using gravel versus paving on Archertown Road. There was some pointed debate about the Selectboard’s desire to spend more than $17,000 to hire the Upper Valley Lake Sunapee Regional Planning Commission to develop a long-range capital improvement plan for a town of 1,200 people.

But by 10 p.m., most of the remainder of the articles, some with minor amendments, were on their way to being passed by voice vote.

A vote by hand was required to pass an article that will allow the Selectboard to spend up to $10,000 to make procurements for emergencies. It passed 50 to 38.

More than 100 people remained until nearly 10:30 p.m. to listen to commentary on Article 16, which would have allowed the Selectboard to convert the job of tax collector clerk into an appointed position. But when a motion was made and seconded to bypass the proposal, it was approved by a loud and clear voice vote.

But after debate residents rejected by voice vote a petition article to allow tax exemptions for homeowners who install alternative energy systems, such as solar power.

In Australian balloting, Selectwoman Anne Duncan Cooley defeated challenger Justin Adams for a three-year term on the Selectboard. Deborah Hadlock defeated Ruth Hook in the bid to succeed Louise Mack as town clerk. P. Chase Kling won against Robert O’Donnell in a one-year term on the Planning Board.

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