Residents show support for Becket Fire Chief at heated disciplinary meeting called by town administrator

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BECKET — More than 100 Berkshire residents, town officials and first responders filled Town Hall on Wednesday evening in support of Fire Chief Mark Hanford during a hearing on alleged "performance issues."Interim Town Administrator Robert Markel had called a private meeting with Hanford to address the fire chief's alleged failure to complete several administrative duties including, responding to emails, having all firefighters to sign a town-required "code of conduct" and providing the town with data on the department's vehicles. But Hanford exercised his right to hold the hearing in public.
Angry participants, many of whom were wearing red, interrupted frequently and attacked Markel for his handling of the situation. Ultimately, no disciplinary action was taken against Hanford.

"After this meeting, I will have a private session with the chief," Markel said, while a firefighter peppered him with questions of whether he would drop the grievances. "We will discuss this privately going forward."

Hanford, who has served on the fire department for more than 40 years, and many members of the public believe that Markel's action against the chief was retaliatory for a public stance the chief made supporting the town of Washington last month when Becket threatened to suspend fire coverage to the neighboring town.

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 in exchange 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 made it clear to residents that, regardless of the letter, he'd make no change in the way his department covers the town.

At the hearing, Markel insisted that the grievances with the chief's conduct were not retaliatory, and that his predecessor had similar issues with Hanford that had not been resolved over the last year.

In his response, Hanford defended his use of email and said that he regularly scans it and responds to town and fire business, but he hadn't gotten a password to the account for almost a year after he was appointed to his position.

"When I did finally open the email, there were 3,600 emails from the guy before me," he said.

Hanford said that he can't help that some of his firefighters are opposed to the language in the code of conduct. As for the information related to department equipment, he provided it at the meeting.

Responding to an allegation by Markel that Hanford has acted rude and insubordinate, the chief denied it.

"Mrs. Hanford did not raise a rude man," he said. "Loud, yeah. Rude, no."

After the hearing, Markel allowed the public to make comments or ask questions. Residents of Becket and surrounding communities expressed anger over the town's threat to suspend fire services to Washington. Becket firefighters said they refused to sign the "code of conduct" because it was too broad. And Hanford's wife spoke out about his courage and dedication to the community.

One Becket resident suggested that the town should be more concerned about the violent behavior of a Planning Board member than issues with Hanford's administrative duties.

In May, Planning Board Chairman Robert Ronzio was banned from town hall after he verbally assaulted two women, according to Select Board member Michael Lavery.

Ronzio had also previously been criminally charged with striking someone in the Town Hall, Lavery said, adding that he can only be at the building for scheduled meetings or with notice.

Markel told the crowd that he had signed the letter banning Ronzio from the building.

On June 6, Markel provided the Select Board with a list of names to be reappointed to town positions that didn't include Hanford's name. State law, however, requires that towns give fire chiefs a year's notice if they won't be reappointed, and therefore Markel's only option to remove Hanford from his position immediately is termination for cause.

Lavery said at the meeting that if there is a vote of no confidence in the fire chief, he will either abstain or not support it. Firefighter and Select Board Chairman William Elovirta, who came under fire for supporting the threat to terminate fire services in Washington, said he is waiting to find out if he'd even be eligible to vote or if there is a conflict of interest.

"Is it the consensus here that I should just dismiss the charges?" Markel asked, to which residents responded "yes."

Markel stopped short of saying that is what he will do.

At the end of the meeting, a petition calling for the immediate removal of Markel from the position of interim town administrator was passed around.

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

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