G’town split over fire chief election

GERMANTOWN—The camaraderie of Germantown Hose Company No. 1—the town’s only fire company, founded in 1908—was disrupted this week in a dispute with the Board of Fire Commissioners that left each side finding its own lawyer.

In December the firefighters elected Michael Lawson to another term as chief, an office he has held for several years. Mr. Lawson won the election by only one vote, 17 to 16, against one opponent, Richard Jennings, Sr., highway superintendent for the Town of Germantown. Both men are longtime company members. The next step would be for the district’s five commissioners to approve the election of Mr. Lawson, first assistant chief Douglas Pearson and second assistant chief James Maruniak.

Normally, this would be almost automatic—but this year, the commissioners refused to approve Mr. Lawson’s election at their meeting Monday.

“There’s always been a personal rub, hard feelings between Mike and certain commissioners,” Michael Mortenson, a fire company member and Germantown councilman, said Tuesday. “There have been problems with approving Mike in the past, and this year the commissioners decided to take it all the way.”

In contrast, said Mr. Mortenson, the firefighters “love Mike, especially the younger firemen. He’s been a great chief. The company is attracting younger members. We used to have 12 drills a year and hardly anyone showed up. Now we have 24 drills a year with real attendance, 10 to 15 guys show up for every drill.”

Mr. Mortenson stressed that “I am not against Rich Jennings. He’s a valued fireman and a friend to many. He was assistant chief for years under Mike Lawson.”

But, said Mr. Mortenson, two of the fire commissioners, Patrick Ebling and Denis Crawford, work for Mr. Jennings in the Germantown Highway Department, and Mr. Mortenson considers that a conflict of interest. The other commissioners are Christopher Mullins, a corrections officer, Hugh McLean, who works for the US Postal Service, and former town Supervisor Roy Brown, who chairs the commissioners’ board.

The company’s website lists some 88 members; 36 were eligible to vote in the election.
George Sharpe, another former town supervisor and longtime fire company member, said he didn’t vote for Mr. Lawson but that he supported the company’s election. “The Fire Department votes on their line officers,” he said Tuesday. “At a fire scene, Mike Lawson is very good. Yes, the election has to be approved by the board, but I’d like to see this worked out. The company needs an explanation for the future.

“This is a good company,” he continued. “The taxpayers give us good equipment and we have young fellows in the company. We have a quick response, even during the day.” He said GTel and Otto Leuschel, owner of Otto’s Market and Germantown Variety, release employees to fight fires, and the Germantown Central School District will release students in good standing.

During their Monday meeting the commissioners voted to go into executive session to discuss specific matters of personnel. Mr. Sharpe and others in the audience of about two-dozen objected.

“Mike isn’t personnel,” said one man, and indeed Mr. Lawson would seem to be a volunteer who was elected to an office. On the other hand, the company’s website lists department chiefs, among others, as department staff.

“The executive session was a cloak, they have nothing,” said Mr. Mortenson.
“What do they know that we don’t know?” Mr. Sharpe wondered.
“We didn’t resolve the issue,” Mr. Brown reported after the 50-minute executive session. “We will seek legal counsel over the next couple of weeks.”

In the meantime, Mr. Lawson is not chief. “Who is acting chief then?” asked a firefighter.
“The line officers have their chain of command,” said Mr. Brown.
The annual reorganization meeting followed, during which Mr. Brown was re-elected chairman of the board, without opposition.

Mr. Lawson attended the meeting but did not speak. Mr. Mortenson said that his friends in the company had persuaded him to let them speak for him. “Nothing’s achieved with anger,” said Mr. Mortenson.

Asked Tuesday if he stood by the executive session, Mr. Brown said yes. Further, he said, the Fire Department’s attorney, Dan Tuczinski of Tuczinski, Cavalier & Gilchrist, based in Albany, had agreed with him and said the commissioners had done the right thing.

“You have to understand that the Board of Fire Commissioners have the best interests of the taxpayers of the Fire District in mind,” Mr. Brown wrote in an email Tuesday. “We take our jobs seriously and we want to heal the ‘rift’ that was mentioned at last night’s meeting for all of our department members, not just those in attendance.”

Tuesday evening the fire company held its regular meeting. As one of the firefighters cooked up spaghetti and clam sauce in the firehouse kitchen, it was reported that all accounts hold a little over $40,000; that January 22 is a cold-water rescue drill; and that a family on Block Factory Road had donated $500 with thanks for a quick response. The Decorating Committee was thanked for a beautiful Christmas party.

Then, with Commissioners Crawford and Brown in attendance, the rift was discussed again. In answer to questions, Mr. Brown said that the vote was not unanimous—one commissioner abstained—and that they had documentation for their decision but could not share it at this time.

“If it was so important, why wasn’t [Mr. Lawson] pulled before the election?” asked Mr. Mortenson. Other firefighters noted that Mr. Lawson’s status had never been discussed during 2014 commissioners’ meetings, and that the “urgency seems more personal than lawful.”

Without a chief, the fire company could hold another election, but the consensus was not to, pending information from the commissioners, who, Mr. Brown said, “want to resolve this as soon as possible.”

The two-dozen people present did vote—the two commissioners abstained—to form a committee to review the company bylaws and seek legal counsel on the Lawson matter.

The committee consists of Stefania Maruniak, an active company member and wife of second assistant chief Maruniak; Mr. Sharpe, a life member; and Daniel Sutera.

With that, the firefighters thanked the commissioners for attending. “None of this is personal,” John Hoey told them.

“I’m still in the company,” said Mr. Brown.

Then all lined up for bowls of spaghetti, a perk of attending the meeting, Mr. Hoey explained. “The problem with all of this,” he added, “is that it disrupts a great community.”

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