Come Saturday afternoon, Thorndike may have a municipal fire department.

Residents will vote on an ordinance to create the Thorndike Fire Department at the annual Town Meeting on Saturday at 9 a.m.

The proposal would replace the volunteer fire company that serves the town and provides mutual aid to a handful of neighboring municipalities, effective immediately upon adoption. Several weeks ago, a letter from four Waldo County emergency service officials denounced then-deputy-chief George Russell and prompted a larger conversation about the structure of the fire department.

The letter, dated Jan. 23, claimed Russell’s lack of training and poor decisions as a leader had endangered his underlings and the mutual aid firefighters he worked with. At the prompting of the select board, Russell resigned on Feb. 15. Then, all but one of the town’s firefighters resigned on Feb. 20 after the selectmen refused to reinstate Russell and release $85,000 to replace equipment that they maintained was at the root of the problems being blamed on Russell.

At that meeting, Waldo County Sheriff Jeff Trafton, who is also a Thorndike resident, suggested that the town move to create a municipal fire department with more oversight. With the town’s current arrangement, the select board only has the authority to approve or reject the fire company’s requests for money and the firemen’s pick for chief.

“I think, in my own opinion, that this whole fire company thing isn’t working in Thorndike,” the sheriff said, later adding, “Right now it’s a popularity contest so that George is popular with the firemen, and they put him in charge. Even after he wasn’t chief, he was still running the show. Everybody here knows that. … (If we have a municipal fire department), the selectmen are responsible for picking the fire chief and then that chief will take the volunteers, train the volunteers and maybe some of this will go away.”

The selectmen scrambled to work with the Maine Municipal Association to draft an ordinance that could land before citizens in time for the Town Meeting.

Selectman Bob Carter said the Thorndike selectmen added language about the fire chief’s responsibilities.

“After a fire, they need to make out proper forms, and there was nothing in the fire chief’s responsibilities for that, and we wanted to make sure those were made out,” Carter said.

While the town’s fire company regularly reported information on money spent, fuel used and equipment condition, the ordinance would formalize the reporting of information to the town’s governing body. The document outlines that the fire chief would be appointed directly by the Select Board, rather than nominated by peers and then confirmed or rejected by the board. It also limits the fire chief’s powers, noting that “rules, regulations, and standard operating procedures, shall not take effect until approved at a duly-noticed meeting of the Board of Selectmen.” Mutual aid agreements with other municipalities must also be authorized by the selectmen.

Though lack of training was at the heart of the Waldo county officials’ concerns with Russell, the proposed ordinance does not contain any requirements for a fire chief or firefighters’ training.

“We only read it once and just added those few things, and I’m sure there’ll be more added to the ordinance as we go along,” Carter said. “Things had to happen quick with Town Meeting. If we brought that ordinance up to the planning board and possibly invited a couple fire chiefs from a couple different towns to go over it with us, they might (suggest) other stuff, and then it’s just a matter of getting it amended.”

Lauren Carter, the only firefighter who did not resign on Feb. 20, said she thinks it would be a good idea to form a municipal department.

“My personal thoughts of the municipal department is that it will create accountability, community support and the transparency that the community deserves,” she said.

Since the mass resignation of firefighters in February, at least five new members have joined. John Levers, who is engaged to Lauren Carter, was appointed chief, and Reggie Cunningham was named assistant chief. Both men served on the Thorndike department in years past.

Carter reported that the town has been more involved with the fire department’s operations since Russell and the others departed.

Bill Gillespie, president of the Waldo County Fire Chiefs’ Association and one of the four individuals who signed the memo about Russell, said on Feb. 28 that he thought the situation “had significantly improved.”

Levers could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.

The Thorndike fire department building on Tuesday. Residents will discuss and vote on an ordinance to create a municipal fire department to replace the current organization this Saturday at the annual Town Meeting. Morning Sentinel photo by David Leaming

SALT/SAND SHED

The total budget Thorndike is asking residents to approve is $767,968.66 from taxation and $6,500 from other accounts or funds.

Last year’s budget was $673,967.54 from taxation and $44,501.96 from surplus. The town came in $81,829.79 under budget, according to the 2018 annual report.

Town Clerk Doreen Berry said there are no major spending increases being proposed this year.

“I think the biggest one, which is inevitable, is the solid waste and recycling, but it was still the better bid than what we got from other contractors in the area,” she said.

The town’s new budget proposes spending $42,900 of taxpayer money on a new contract for trash pickup and $9,920.18 for the Regional Recycling Center. Last year, voters approved $26,100 for waste removal from Sullivan’s Waste and $8102.56 for recycling.

Within the year, Thorndike will have to address a problem with the town’s salt and sand shed. For the past several years, residents approved allocating $5,000 to a fund to replace the structure, and the town is again requesting authorization for $5,000 to be allocated to the fund.

“The Maine DEP has entered an enforcement action (against) the town for road salt contamination of the Hall Brook Stream, as well as the fact that the bridge to the salt and sand pile is failing,” according to the Select Board’s annual report. “There is a possibility of avoiding fines if we take action right away to remedy the situation. For these reasons, your Board is proposing that we buy property and construct a salt and sand shed.”

First Selectman Larry Ward said the brook pollution was a “huge problem” and the bridge over it to the current salt and sand shed is “dead, done, defunct, unsafe (and) we’ve got to vacate.”

Bob Carter noted that town officials have been presented with preliminary designs for a new salt and sand shed and were given a list of engineers who could do the work. They still need to identify a location for the structure, however.

“We have spoken with a couple of landowners in town to possibly purchase land from them,” he said. “We’re getting the ball rolling. … There’s a pretty good chance we’ll have to have a special town meeting (to authorize the building).”

He added that he had hoped the town could pay off some of the road bonds issued several years ago before “hitting taxpayers with another bond,” but that the issue is urgent.

 

ELECTIONS

There will be an open-floor election for all three seats on the select board. Though individuals are not required to announce their candidacy before Saturday, Ward and Carter both indicated that they are interested in holding their positions on the board for another year. Larry Hustis, the third selectman, did not return a call on Wednesday seeking confirmation about whether he planned to run.

Thorndike selectmen serve one-year terms.

Carter, who has served for the past three years, said he has enjoyed being a local leader.

“I like serving the town,” he said. “It’s a nice town.” He said the job isn’t anything a responsible person couldn’t do.

Ward, who has served for nearly a decade, said he still feels there is unfinished business to attend to. Building a salt and sand shed was at the top of his list.

“There’s still a lot of work to be done — work that’s crucial to the town,” he said.

Thorndike’s Town Meeting will be held 9 a.m. Saturday in the town hall.

 

Meg Robbins — 861-9239
[email protected]
Twitter: @megrobbins

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