Dunn’s Corners to begin new search for fire chief after failing to agree on candidate

Dunn’s Corners to begin new search for fire chief after failing to agree on candidate

Record-Journal

WESTERLY — The Dunn’s Corners Fire District will resume a search for a new fire chief this week after a selection committee was unable to agree on either of the two finalists who emerged from an initial search effort that started in April.

Resumption of the search comes amid calls by some firefighters and district officials for changes to the district’s bylaws and charter, Matthew Thomsen, district moderator, confirmed Friday.

The position became vacant when former Chief Michael Frink resigned in April. Frink, who was chief for more than 12 years, cited a desire to pay more attention to his family and personal health as reasons for leaving the position.

On Aug. 23, the seven-member chief selection committee voted on two candidates in a closed-door executive session. Neither candidate garnered a supermajority (at least five votes) as required by the district’s bylaws, Thomsen said. He declined to disclose the names of the candidates.

The chief selection committee, as specified by the district charter, consists of four at-large members of the district operating committee, a fire department representative, and two members of the department selected by the department.

The Aug. 23 meeting was the culmination of a search process that saw 15 candidates submit applications for the job. Applications were accepted from May 1 through May 31 and interviews started in June. Thomsen declined to disclose the salary range for the position but Frink was making about $110,000 per year at the time of his resignation.

Thomsen, for one, said at least one provision of the district bylaws should be changed.

“The supermajority, I don’t know who came up with that,” Thomsen said, referring to the voting requirement of the chief selection committee.

Some have called for a change in the composition of the six-member operating committee. The district charter calls for the committee to consist of four at-large members, a fire department representative, and the chief. The committee composition sets up a potentially tense dynamic since multiple members of the fire department can serve on the committee and exert authority over the chief, who is the ultimate authority at fires and other emergency scenes.

Sources familiar with the department said exactly such a situation developed toward the end of Frink’s tenure. Frink suspended a firefighter, who happened to be a member of the operating committee, for speaking to a fellow firefighter inappropriately, but then sat side by side with the firefighter at subsequent operating committee meetings. The operating committee sets policy and has authority over the chief, including the power to terminate him.

“It does present issues when your chief has the people he’s responsible for looking over his shoulder,” Thomsen said.

Thomsen said discussions of the need for a charter revision have occurred recently but he was advising hiring a new chief before launching a charter revision effort that would be time-consuming and laborious. He also noted that revising the charter would require approval by the district’s voters as well as adoption by the state General Assembly.

“It’s a long process, as it should be,” Thomsen said.

The operating committee setup appears to be unique, at least in Westerly, to the Dunn’s Corners district. The Westerly Fire Department chief, first assistant chief, second assistant chief, and third assistant chief are elected by voters in the district and all serve until the age of 65. They can only be removed by district voters following a special committee investigation of a complaint filed with the district’s board of engineers.

The chiefs of the Watch Hill and Misquamicut Fire districts serve on their respective operating committees but are the only firefighters who can vote.

The Dunn’s Corners Fire Department provides fire protection services to the Dunn’s Corners district, and also serves the Bradford, Shelter Harbor, Shady Harbor, and Quonochontaug fire districts under contract.

Keith Kenyon, the Dunn’s Corners first deputy chief, is serving as interim chief.

Frink could not be reached for comment for this article.

dfaulkner@thewesterlysun.com


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