Heated council meeting

Mulgrave wants transparency, accountability from fire dept.

By Katherine Murphy    
January 8 2020

A strained relationship between the Town of Mulgrave and the local fire chief was laid bare at an emotionally charged meeting of Mulgrave Town Council on Monday night.

Fire Chief Michael Breen attended the meeting with over a dozen Fire Dept. members after receiving a letter from the town asking for his resignation. The letter was hand-delivered by Mayor Ralph Hadley and Deputy Mayor Robert Russell, and raised concerns over Breen’s health, which Breen has made known publicly, particularly his recent heart issues.

The letter was sent after town council was advised by the Fire Marshal and the Dept. of Municipal Affairs on how to handle growing tensions between the town and the fire department. The Fire Marshal advised that the town has authority to remove a fire chief, while at the meeting Breen stated that only fire dept. members have that power. Breen vowed that if he was to be removed by the town, the entire dept. will leave their positions as well.

The raised stakes come after months of contention between the chief and Mulgrave CAO Darlene Berthier Sampson. The CAO, a year into her tenure, has been demanding transparency from the fire dept. regarding its finances and accountability in adhering to regulations. Chief Breen claimed during the council meeting that he was being bullied by the CAO and called for her to resign -- going so far as to offer a firetruck to escort her out of town.

Berthier Sampson pointed to the shift between what she sees as years of indifference from previous CAOs to her pursuit of accountability as a challenge in the relationship.

When the town learned that the dept. was over budget, the CAO asked for their financial statement and the dept. refused to provide it. The financial statement was eventually obtained through an application under the Freedom of Information Act. Berthier Sampson told The Journal the statement lacked sufficient information, saying it just showed three numbers: revenue, other expenses and income or loss, “so to have ‘other expenses’ of 100,000 or 150,000 dollars all merge together, that’s not transparent to us.”

The town is also concerned over safety. With the help of an inspector, town officials found expired equipment including fire extinguishers and turnout gear that was reaching the end of its 10-year lifespan. The furnace was discovered to not have been cleaned in seven years, itself becoming a fire hazard. There is also concern about dept. assets possibly being uninsured, as insurance is obtained through the town.

The fire dept.’s finances were further called into question when issues with their oil consumption were revealed. During Monday’s inspection, the temperature in the apparatus bay was set to 60 degrees Fahrenheit, the CAO said, and gaps in doorways provide easy escape for heat.

In a letter dated Dec. 31, the fire dept. requested a new 500-gallon oil tank to replace the current 200-gallon tank that is emptying faster since the tank was taken off an autofill plan. The tank was half full a week after its last fill. The town has not decided on a new tank or putting the existing tank back on autofill, instead hoping to find a solution to optimize consumption. Mayor Hadley emphasized the cost to taxpayers, saying, “$1600 for a week of oil, there’s something wrong there.”

Before concluding council, it was agreed upon by both parties to meet at a later date to work together to find solutions to concerns raised by both sides. The meeting would include the entire council as well as the fire dept. executive. Chief Breen spoke with The Journal after the meeting and stated that he does not plan on attending.

“I’m done fighting with her,” he said, referring to the CAO. Instead he plans to send the dept. treasurer, Lorne MacDonald, in his place.

The fire dept.'s biannual executive election is slated for January 27.