Becket fire chief faces disciplinary hearing, claims it's retaliatory for his handling of Washington fire coverage dispute

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BECKET — Fire Chief Mark Hanford is facing a disciplinary hearing at Town Hall on Wednesday, and he said residents of Becket and Washington will be on hand to lend support.

Hanford, 68, who has worked with the volunteer department in several roles for 45 years, including as chief since 2014, said he believes the action is retaliatory for his public support to the neighboring town of Washington, which nearly lost its fire coverage from Becket following a dispute over their annual contribution to fire services.

"Of course it is (retaliatory) — with a capital R. How else do you explain it?" Hanford said. "Becket town government has traditionally given the fire department no support."

Hanford was recently served with a certified letter by interim Town Administrator Robert Markel alerting him of the disciplinary hearing.

The letter alleges performance issues, including that the chief has failed to get his department to sign a required document, that he doesn't efficiently respond to emails and that he behaves in a way that is "rude" or "insubordinate," Hanford said.

He disputed the last two charges, and dismissed the first, noting it was understandable some firefighters were reluctant to sign the fire services agreement amid the concern over Washington fire coverage and other internal issues.

Becket came under public scrutiny last month after a disagreement with the Washington Select Board prompted Markel to issue a letter threatening to terminate the fire department's policy of providing coverage.

Washington, a town of 600 residents, does not have its own fire department. Over the last eight years, Becket has provided fire protection services to Washington for an annual contribution of $10,000. This year, Becket sought to increase that contribution to $15,000, which Washington had rejected, prompting the threat of termination.

While that issue has since been resolved — the towns of Becket and Washington have agreed to a temporary $12,500 annual contribution — Hanford had taken a public stance showing his support for Washington.

In a letter to the editor published June 11 in The Eagle, Hanford declared that, despite the letter threatening to terminate coverage of Washington, he would make no change in the way his department covers the town.

"Let me further state that at no time was I consulted or advised of any issues concerning the Becket Fire Department and the town of Washington. My opinion was not asked for. No one from either town asked me for any data or anything else concerning how much money Washington was paying or should pay in the future for fire protection," Hanford wrote. "The Becket Select Board and town administrator do not speak for the fire department."

While he called Hanford's letter "caustically critical" of the Select Board, Markel denied that it was the reason for the hearing on Wednesday.

And he challenged the idea that the disciplinary hearing was retaliatory, noting that the board had decided June 6 — days before Hanford's letter was published — that it would not reappoint the chief next year.

Because of a law that requires fire chiefs with no contract be give a year's notice if they will not be reappointed, if the town wants to get Hanford out of his position sooner, he must be terminated for cause, Markel said.

Still, Wednesday's hearing, which Hanford opted to have open to the public, may not end with Hanford's termination, Markel said.

"Everyone assumes that he's going to get fired. That is not necessarily going to happen," Markel said. "We're going to see how it turns out. If he resigns or is terminated, we would appoint an acting chief."

Markel declined to identify issues he has with Hanford's performance until the public hearing, calling them "personnel issues," but said he's not the first town administrator to take issue with his work.

Hanford said he and Becket's previous town administrator had a discussion about having officers fill out a document and cleaning up one of the stations, but he had never before been called to a formal hearing like the one scheduled Wednesday.

The chief said he isn't looking to hold on to his position for many more years, but he's been waiting to retire until he identifies and trains the appropriate replacement, he said.

"I didn't ask for any of this" Hanford said about whether he expects firefighters to attend the hearing. "I'm not making my (firefighters) go anywhere. They can do exactly as they please."

Haven Orecchio-Egresitz can be reached at horecchio@berkshireeagle.com, @HavenEagle on Twitter and 413-770-6977.

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