Mass. fire chief placed on leave after purchasing SUV

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By Craig S. Semon
Telegram & Gazette

BROOKFIELD, Mass. — The town's fire chief was placed on administrative leave after purchasing a new vehicle for the fire department without the selectmen's permission, input or knowledge.

On Tuesday night, Stephen J. Comtois II, chairman of the Board of Selectmen, and Linda M. Lincoln, vice chairman, took turns chastising Fire Chief Peter Martel for spending $33,814 of town money — money that was put aside for such a purchase — for a 2017 Ford Expedition, plus an additional "couple of thousand more" of town funds expected to go towards outfitting, marking and equipping the vehicle for fire department use.

In addition to the purchase, Ms. Lincoln said, Chief Martel submitted an expense voucher from his home address with two Fire Department bills that was flagged by the town accountant. Chief Martel repeatedly said that submitting the personal expense was an honest mistake.

As a result, selectmen ordered a "forensic audit" of the Fire Department be completed by the town accountant. The paid administrative leave for purchasing the vehicle will continue until an investigation and hearing is completed.

Chief Martel argued that the town approved the purchase of a new police cruiser and fire vehicle in June at the annual town meeting. He said the police chief bought his cruiser first, and he followed suit.

"The police chief went through whatever process he needed to do to purchase a vehicle," Chief Martel said. "I consulted with him, found what process he followed. I actually asked him for a recommendation on vendors and I followed the same process."

Chief Martel said he asked the police chief if there was anything imposed on him by the selectmen to purchase the police cruiser and, according to the fire chief, the police chief said no.

On Nov. 11, Chief Martel said the previous vehicle – a 1999 Ford Crown Victoria that was purchased used from another community and had 154,000 miles on it – was taken out of commission because it failed to receive an annual state safety inspection sticker.

Furthermore, Chief Martel insisted he notified the procurement officer on Sept. 16 and it came up at a department heads meeting in October, in which Selectman Clarence R. Synder III was present. Mr. Synder said he had no recollection of any reference to a new fire department vehicle being made at that meeting.

Mr. Comtois and Ms. Lincoln both had "serious issues" with the fire chief not following policy and procedures.

"We didn't give you permission to purchase a new vehicle," Ms. Lincoln said. "It seems to me that you seem to forget that we're the appointing authority … You seem to think that you don't have to report to us."

"We're your boss, Peter. Not once did you report to the Board of Selectmen your desire to purchase a vehicle," Mr. Comtois said. "To see it passing before our desk once it was purchased, once it was being outfitted, without any discussion, ANY discussion, with the Board of Selectmen that represents the town of almost 3,000 people, that's a huge lack of trust."

Mr. Comtois said he doesn't think the police chief followed policy either with the police cruiser, but he said that wasn't as egregious and the police chief kept the selectmen in the loop.

"Purchasing a brand-new vehicle for a part-time fire chief can only be seen like spending money like a drunken sailor, especially without the desire to communicate that purchase with the people who have to sign off on it," Mr. Comtois said.

Adding to the expressed sentiments that the fire chief's actions "really smells of deceit" and "nothing's defensible for this," Mr. Comtois said he talked to the dealership and it is willing to take the new vehicle back.

"I want to throw up right now. I'm not exaggerating," Mr. Comtois said. "Wow, my head's spinning."

The selectmen voted 3-0 to place the fire chief on administrative leave.

Chief Martel, who has 31 years of service with the town, is also a full-time firefighter/paramedic for the town and will still serve in that position during his paid administrative leave.

Copyright 2017 Telegram & Gazette

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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