On a margin of just nine votes, Norwood Town Meeting members voted Monday to rescind the town’s Strong Chief Law.
The article was one of six Fire Department-related items on the warrant and generated nearly two hours of discussion.
It was proposed by the Board of Selectmen, which after letting go of Michael Howard as fire chief last month, decided that it was time to reevaluate the chief’s powers and budgetary duties.
According to Massachusetts General Law 48, Section 42, a strong chief “shall have and exercise all the powers and discharge all the duties conferred or imposed by statute upon engineers . . . and shall appoint a deputy chief and such officers and firemen as he may think necessary.” It goes on to say that the chief shall also have “full and absolute authority in the administration of the department,” but is required to report to selectmen from time to time.
Now that the law has been removed, the incoming fire chief will no longer report to the Board of Selectmen. Instead, he or she will report directly to the general manager, who will also be in charge of that department's budget.
Andy Quinn, president of the Norwood firefighters union, gave a presentation about the reasoning behind the law and the reasons for its existence. He argued that the law allowed the chief to manage every aspect of his or her department and keep politics out of the day-to-day dealings.
“The Fire Department needs to be headed by a professional firefighter, not a professional administrator,” he said.
On the flip side, selectmen argued that because a “strong chief” is in charge of the fire budget, it takes his or her time away other issues within the department. Several selectmen also said that they do not have the skills needed to oversee the chief’s budgetary decisions and that should be left up to a professional like the general manager.
“You can’t expect a retired police officer or a bread maker to oversee the department,” Selectman Paul Bishop said, referring to himself and Chairman Michael Lyons, who owns a bakery.
Residents spoke for and against the article urging, their fellow town meeting members to think about the issue from a business perspective and to leave feelings aside.
“We need to keep emotion out of this, it’s really incumbent upon us to decide what is right for the town,” resident Gerri Slater said.
After calling for a voice vote and a show of hands vote, the decision was ultimately determined via standing vote with 88 people voting "yes" and 79 people voting "no."
Town Meeting also approved 10 other budgetary articles and indefinitely postponed one that would have approved the funding for a concession stand at Norwood High School.
Natalie Feulner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.