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    Monday, May 27, 2024

    East Lyme first selectman: Probe underscores need for centralized fire service

    East Lyme ― The recent workplace harassment investigation into part-time firefighter Chris Taylor, who also serves as the Flanders Fire Department’s volunteer chief, underscores the need to bring the town’s two independent fire departments under professional leadership.

    That’s according to First Selectman Dan Cunningham, who created the unified East Lyme Fire Service in February. He said entities that spend taxpayer money need municipal supervision.

    “And there wasn’t oversight or accountability, so that was one of the biggest reasons why we started looking at making the change,” he said.

    Cunningham tagged Fire Marshal Bill Bundy and Deputy Fire Marshal Erik Quinn as the acting chief and assistant. The first selectman said he created the positions based on authority granted in the town charter for him to establish temporary positions.

    Taylor was on leave for more than two months while an investigator hired by the town looked into allegations from firefighter David Swinburne that Taylor was hostile and belittling in a Jan. 17 interaction. Swinburne said a profanity-laced tirade came after he expressed concerns about the chief being lax when it comes to purchasing and maintaining equipment.

    According to the investigation report, Quinn in a Jan. 15 email to Bundy said he heard complaints that missing equipment would show up damaged or destroyed after Taylor said he was “borrowing” it, and that hardware store purchases for items such as vehicle fluid and pocket knives were unaccounted for.

    Quinn said Taylor also ordered his chief officers to stop working with the Niantic Fire Department and to cancel all joint meetings and training. He reported that multiple members said Taylor was not responding to calls, not addressing issues within the building and “not providing any leadership.”

    Taylor was elected as the Flanders chief in 2021. He had worked as a deputy fire marshal and then fire marshal before he resigned in 2019, three weeks before he was arrested by Connecticut State Police for allegedly stealing more than $13,000 from the New London County Fire Marshal's Association. Taylor previously told The Day the case was resolved through the courts, and the money was paid back. Records have since been erased.

    Cunningham said addressing the purchasing and maintenance concerns raised in the report was not within the scope of the harassment investigation. But he said his efforts to streamline the town’s fire service will ensure such problems don’t continue.

    “All that is going to be centralized. We’re going to abide by a purchasing policy, bills are going to get paid when they come in, and there isn’t going to be opportunity for any of those anomalies.”

    Giving ‘everybody a voice’

    The two fire departments, as well as East Lyme Ambulance, have long operated separately from each other and the town.

    There are 10 full-time paid firefighters currently, with one added in the 2024-25 proposed budget.

    The idea of altering the volunteer structure going back 100 years in Niantic and 67 years in Flanders has been controversial. And it is not a unique problem: Tensions between volunteers, paid firefighters and town leaders has been evident in numerous towns and cities in the region that have previously been reliant on volunteers.

    The friction comes as towns across the region struggle with dwindling volunteer numbers and upheaval associated with changes in interpretations of the Fair Labor Standards Act. The law in part says town employees can’t volunteer to provide their employer the same services they are paid to provide.

    Bill G. Rix, a lifetime member and past chief of the Flanders Fire Department, in a phone interview Monday emphasized he and other members are not opposed to the idea of a full-time, paid fire chief.

    “We really aren’t,” he said. “If we were consulted, we could have changed our bylaws within the department to accommodate the new fire chief. But we were never considered. We were just an afterthought.”

    He said he didn’t know about Cunningham’s centralization effort until he read about it in the newspaper.

    “Obviously, this whole thing comes down to money,” he said. “By his own admission, he told us he hired from within the town to save money. That’s fine. I get it. I understand it. But nobody else in town was offered the opportunity to apply for the job.”

    Cunningham’s proposal combines the fire marshal and fire chief roles, rather than hiring separately for each. The combined position is slated to cost $117,000 in the proposed town operations budget, up from $93,830 in the current budget for the fire marshal alone.

    The deputy fire marshal/fire chief salary is slated for $105,000, up from $68,000 this year.

    Bundy, a retired state trooper, told the Board of Finance last month he’s been in the fire services for 42 years, including 26 years as an active volunteer where he lives in Lebanon. There, he held positions such as fire lieutenant, fire captain, training officer and incident commander. He said he is certified as a firefighter, fire instructor, fire officer and hazmat technician.

    Bundy before he retired from the Connecticut State Police served as commanding officer of the Fire and Explosion Investigation Unit.

    Cunningham said the process now involves getting the new East Lyme Fire Service funded in the proposed 2024-25 town operations budget, making the acting positions permanent through a vote of the Board of Selectmen, and drafting an ordinance to lay out the details of the new organizational structure.

    Cunningham said there’ll be the opportunity for comment from residents when the Board of Selectmen reviews each stage of that process.

    “I’m trying to make the transition from something that was done for expediency to something that’s transparent and that gives everybody a voice,” he said.

    While Rix would like to see an open hiring process for the permanent fire chief and assistant chief positions, he said it’s a “foregone conclusion” that Bundy and Quinn will be appointed.

    That’s why he said he’ll be voting no on the budget when it goes to a May referendum, he said.

    “It’s the only voice that we have,” he said.

    e.regan@theday.com

    Editor’s note: This article was updated to correct where Bundy served as a volunteer.

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