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East Lyme first selectman seeks professional to improve oversight of volunteer fire departments

East Lyme — First Selectman Mark Nickerson is calling for changes to fire department oversight in a town that has seen two fire officials arrested in the past few years.

Nickerson this week told The Day that hiring a fire administrator who reports to the Board of Selectmen would provide "oversight and accountability" for the two volunteer fire chiefs. It's an idea he first proposed back in November, when the selectmen decided instead to make a subcommittee to investigate the oversight issue more fully.

The subcommittee is reviewing a 2017 fire study and getting input from the Flanders and Niantic fire departments.

Nickerson said his decision to propose a fire administrator position "is not related" to the election of Flanders Fire Department Chief Chris Taylor in October.

Taylor was previously an employee of the town for 15 years, serving as a deputy fire marshal for 14 years and then as fire marshal. He resigned in October 2019 — three weeks before he was arrested by Connecticut State Police, who alleged he stole more than $13,000 from the New London County Fire Marshal's Association.

Nickerson said the proposal is part of a continuing effort to bring more professionalism to fire services in town.

East Lyme's two independent fire companies operate separately from the town, and their volunteer chiefs do not report to the selectmen, according to Nickerson. Both departments include a combination of paid and volunteer firefighters.

There are nine full-time, paid firefighters in total, Nickerson said. They report directly to the first selectman on a day-to-day basis, while the fire chiefs retain operational control of both paid and volunteer firefighters at the scene of a fire.

He cited a growing population as a driver for the proposed position, as well as ever increasing costs related to salary, equipment, liability issues and state and federal requirements.

"Therefore, professionalism has to reign," he said.

An administrator who oversees the chiefs and reports to the Board of Selectmen "would be perfect" to handle functions related to scheduling, labor contracts, budgeting, certification and Occupational Safety and Health Administration requirements, according to Nickerson.

Another possibility cited in a $15,000, 272-page fire department study from JLN Associates of Old Lyme released in 2017 is the hiring of a "full-time career fire chief" who would oversee both fire departments, emergency medical services, the fire marshal's office and emergency management.

Niantic Fire Department Chief Jim Barone this week said he's not opposed to the idea of a paid chief, but does have concerns about a fire administrator. He told The Day he was elected as the volunteer chief not quite a year ago.

"A fire department is made up of a chief who has ideas about the future and manning and equipment and should have a plan. I just don't see an administrator doing that," Barone said.

He noted the town hired a police chief, not an administrator, when the police department was restructured.

Taylor, the Flanders chief, said this week he doesn't see a need to change the organization of the departments. "What is wrong with the system? It's worked for so many years," he said.

He said a paid chief would mean it's not a volunteer service anymore and the separate departments would lose their autonomy. "It changes the whole aspect of everything," he said.

Taylor said he was the only one qualified to be chief when he was elected by the members of the fire department in October.

In the arrest warrant affidavit, state police alleged Taylor stole more than $13,000 from the New London County Fire Marshal's Association while serving as the group's treasurer.

Taylor told The Day "everything's been resolved" through the courts and that the money has been paid back. He declined to go into specifics.

"I'm moving forward, not looking back," he said.

The court file is not available because it has been statutorily sealed, according to the state Judicial Branch. This is an indication Taylor has been accepted into a diversionary program, such as accelerated rehabilitation. Generally, if somebody successfully completes the program and is not rearrested, their charges will be dismissed.

Nickerson reiterated the chief is elected by volunteers and said Taylor is not hired or compensated by the town, nor is he in charge of any funds directly.

"While we do supply him with a vehicle and we give him an email that says eltownhall.com, because he does kind of run a department, it's a volunteer situation that the first selectman nor anyone else in town has any say in," he said.

He said he has no reservations about Taylor's commitment to running a professional organization and that the chief is leading "with distinction, with great leadership, with professionalism."

There are checks and balances in place to prevent theft from occurring, according to Nickerson.

Some of those checks and balances related to payroll were instituted following a separate case in 2019, when former Niantic Fire Chief Stephen M. Wargo was charged with first-degree larceny for collecting a total of $2,397 for shifts he did not work while he was serving both as a volunteer chief and a paid, part-time firefighter for the department. Wargo resigned from his positions with the Niantic Fire Department several months before the warrant for his arrest was issued.

Wargo was granted a special form of probation by a New London Superior Court judge that will dismiss the charges against him if he stays out of trouble through October and does 50 hours of community service.

Nickerson said anyone with concerns about Taylor's role as chief based on past history should be assured by those checks and balances.

"And, frankly, we have a good man in a position he's doing a very good job in," he said. "While we all make mistakes in life, I do believe in second chances for people who earn that right."

e.regan@theday.com

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