WEST GARDINER — Firefighter Vicki Dill is expected to take an oath soon to become the town’s first female fire chief, but her promotion is revealing a rift among other firefighters who doubt her qualifications and dedication.

Meanwhile, Dill is signing an undisclosed settlement with the town to resolve complaints that the town refused to appoint Dill as fire chief earlier because she’s a woman. The Maine Human Rights Commission in September supported Dill’s claims that the town treated her differently because of her gender.

Even with the department’s divisions laid bare, Dill said she expects to work with the department cooperatively.

“I think everything will work into place and everyone will continue to be a team,” she said.

Jonathan Brogan, an attorney for the town, said it’s possible Dill could have filed a lawsuit against West Gardiner in connection with the discrimination claims if an agreement wasn’t reached. Brogan expected the settlement to be signed this week, and Dill said she’d accept the chief’s position after that happens.

“Basically, we have reached a satisfactory conclusion,” Brogan said. “We hope all the issues, any problems that this brought about, will be healed with time.”

Dill will be paid $5,000 a year to lead the roughly 20-member volunteer department.

The previous fire chief, Chris McLaughlin, resigned at the end of January after selectmen told him Dill would become the new chief. McLaughlin had been the chief for two years.

In a 11-9 vote, the West Gardiner Firemen’s Association elected Dill as fire chief in 2009 over then-Chief Ken Stackpole. Selectmen intervened and instead chose George Marcotte, a former chief, who garnered only two votes from the association members.

Victor Goodwin Sr., chairman of the three-member board, said they chose Marcotte to avoid dividing the department on the issue of the next chief. The selectmen continued choosing the fire chief in subsequent years, but Goodwin said they’ll give the control back to the association starting with next year’s chief. The selectmen historically have appointed a fire chief each year.

Goodwin said Dill is qualified to be fire chief, but Scott Taylor, president of the association, disagrees.

Taylor said he went to selectmen after Dill was elected in 2009 to express concern about her lack of experience in driving or operating a firetruck.

“I don’t believe she was discriminated against,” Taylor said. “I believe people spoke up because there were safety concerns.”

Taylor said a chief should be able to do everything on a fire scene, including driving and operating a firetruck, and that Dill has not demonstrated she can do that.

In complaints filed with the human rights commission, Dill claimed she was discriminated against in 2009, 2010 and 2011 in not being made chief and that she was demoted from her training officer’s role in 2010 after telling a Kennebec Journal reporter that she felt she was the victim of gender discrimination.

Taylor contests the claims. He said McLaughlin took over only the record-keeping portion of Dill’s role when he became chief.

Selectmen didn’t have formal criteria for what’s needed to become chief in 2009, but they enacted a list of requirements last November. Goodwin said Dill still needs to show she can drive a truck and has until May to do so.

Dill disputes the notion that she isn’t qualified to serve as chief and said she’ll complete all requirements by May. She said she already is trained to drive the trucks and has operated them before at a scene.

Firefighter Gary Hickey agrees with the association president that Dill isn’t qualified. He said Dill hasn’t done anything to improve herself as an applicant for the position since the 2009 vote.

“If I’m going to be under her, I’d like to know she can get a truck to a fire scene, that she could get a truck to pump water,” Hickey said. “You know, all of the necessities of a scene.”

Hickey also said he questions her dedication to the town, given that she was supposed to be appointed chief at the end of January but hasn’t taken the oath yet.

Technically, the town has been without a fire chief since then.

“We’re kind of questioning who’s in charge here,” Hickey said. “More importantly, I guess, is if she’s wanting it, why isn’t she signing up for it?”

Dill said she hasn’t taken the oath yet because she was waiting for the settlement to be finalized.

Even though West Gardiner has lacked a fire chief since the end of January, Taylor said he thinks it hasn’t hampered any firefighting efforts.

Paul Koenig — 621-5663
pkoenig@mainetoday.com