Stockbridge fire chief given boot; 12 volunteers resign en masse
This story has been updated to clarify the act of resignation by 12 volunteer firefighters.
STOCKBRIDGE — The Select Board has terminated embattled Fire Chief Ernest "Chuckie" Cardillo, leaving the town's volunteer fire department in apparent disarray.
The board voted 2-0 on Tuesday afternoon to immediately fire Cardillo, citing alleged mismanagement, poor judgment and a failure to cooperate with interim department leaders since he was placed on paid, partial administrative leave 10 weeks ago. Cardillo, who also is a selectmen, did not vote.
Cardillo, a volunteer firefighter for 40 years and an inspector, has continued to serve with the department under the leadership of acting Fire Chief Neil Haywood and perform inspections.
In the wake of Tuesday's vote, 12 volunteers have chosen to resign from the department and will no longer be paged to respond to calls, according to firefighter Matthew Szwyd, Cardillo's son-in-law. Some of the volunteers left their helmets, jackets, pagers and other department gear lined up in front of the fire station.
Several town officials contended that five of those volunteers were no longer on active duty, and that a few others who left in the recent past have returned. But the current strength and viability of the department remained in contention on Wednesday morning.
Cardillo's attorney, Robert Fuster Sr., told The Eagle he will discuss options with his client, "including litigation for breach of contract for termination without just cause." Fuster called the vote by Select Board Chairman Donald Chabon and member Terry Flynn as "beyond a draconian decision, based on the conduct."
Cardillo was accused by the selectmen of costing the town $83,000 in overbilling and excess shipments of department supplies for six years. The supplies were purchased from two New York vendors, both of which said they had audio recordings of Cardillo making the orders via phone.
Flynn accused the chief of "extremely poor judgment, incompetent management and a serious failure to communicate, serious enough to be a disqualifying situation."
During an "evidentiary hearing" before the selectmen deliberated and voted, Cardillo acknowledged that he felt pressured by repeated sales calls from the vendors and believed that he was compelled to accept the excess supplies because he was under a verbal contract he had agreed to in late 2012. If he didn't, Cardillo said, he believed that the companies would send new bills tripling the cost of previously purchased material and perhaps start legal action against the town.
He conceded that he ordered more material than the department needed, that he was "scammed" several times, and that he felt "pressured" by the vendors into accepting the excess shipments. But he firmly denied that he tried to hide the "scam" and not disclose the pressure.
"He was scammed by these two companies; they're scam artists," Fuster said. "Lots and lots and lots of other government entities, churches and nonprofits were scammed by these people. He's not the only one who's been scammed."
Asked whether he had done anything to undermine the authority of the acting chief and the Select Board during his suspension, Cardillo replied "absolutely not." Nor did he falsify any records, he said.
He also stated that he complied with all of Haywood's requests and did nothing to jeopardize the best interests of the town. Cardillo asserted that he handled all the duties he was asked to perform and responded to all calls during the past two months whenever he was available — 21 out of 48 calls.
"I take care of the people of this town as I always have," Cardillo said, "and I would not do anything to put the town in jeopardy."
But Chabon said Cardillo failed to cooperate with Haywood and Assistant Fire Chief Peter Socha until he was instructed to do so, at Chabon's suggestion, by Town Administrator Danielle Fillio.
"It's clear to me that he did not absorb the attitude that he needed to work with the two new chiefs," he said. "He did not do that. Specifically did not; actively did not."
Chabon acknowledged that Cardillo "does many of the tasks well — he's a good EMT, a good fireman — I've got nothing but positive reports. But it strikes me that the chief's position has clearly gotten away from him."
He also noted that, as a selectman, Cardillo must have been familiar with municipal accounting practices and proper financial procedures.
Flynn moved to terminate Cardillo immediately and rescind his partial administrative leave. His motion also called for Cardillo to return the department's SUV, all keys, documents, equipment and supplies in his possession to the interim chief, and that he cease all contact with the department for one year, or until any litigation he files against the town is resolved.
But, after discussion with Chabon and suggestions by the town counsel, the Select Board formally approved a revised, more limited motion to terminate Cardillo as chief immediately and stipulate that Cardillo may not serve on the department unless and until he is appointed by Haywood, the interim chief.
J. Raymond Miyares, the town counsel, will draft a decision to be signed by Chabon and Cardillo.
Chabon said it is not in the "town's best interest" for Cardillo to continue as chief. But, he added, "I'm not into banishing people" and suggested that Cardillo could be "employed" as an inspector, an EMT and in other capacities if the interim chiefs and assistant chief wish.
"He has skills and abilities that are useful to the town," Chabon acknowledged. "I'm very concerned about us moving forward."
Haywood and Socha have agreed to continue to run the department for the time being.
The 2 1/2-hour executive session was opened to the public at Cardillo's request. As many as 50 townspeople attended, including some of the volunteer firefighters.
The session began with a presentation by Miyares of the "scam" perpetrated by Pioneer Products and Noble Industries, both located in Long Island, N.Y.
Flynn described the excess purchases since 2012 and the prices Cardillo agreed to pay the vendors as "beyond belief; not just some minor thing."
He cited a survey of surrounding fire departments prepared as part of an inventory by Haywood and Socha. The survey recommended a 60-gallon supply of foam, 10 gallons of truck wash, 5 gallons of hose wash, 576 wipes in two cases and 111 pails of ice melt.
"This leaves as excess, unneeded supplies 552 gallons of foam, 202 gallons of truck wash, 151 gallons of hose wash, and 46 cases (13,248 fire wipes) purchased by Cardillo," Flynn said.
By following the recommendations of chiefs in other towns for normal supplies, Flynn said, the town would have spent $4,112.
"Instead, he approved orders for $107,246." The town actually paid $87,201 after the intervention of the town accountant.
By Flynn's calculation, the town spent over $83,000 on unneeded items.
"That's not a minor thing," he said, "and that's pointing to significant deficiencies in terms of Fire Department management."
Flynn described Cardillo's conduct as a "serious breach of the public trust and a failure to honor his fiduciary responsibility as a selectman, his contractual duty as fire chief to preserve the integrity and professionalism of the Fire Department, his obligation as a town employee to conduct himself in a highly ethical, professional and appropriate manner, and his obligation to abide by Massachusetts law in purchasing supplies."
Fuster, Cardillo's attorney, contended that the chief had submitted invoices properly, felt contractually required to accept the orders, had not been taught about the state's procurement laws, had not been designated as a purchasing agent for the town and had kept a private spreadsheet only to track the department's level-funded budgets.
His budget ran over twice in recent years, and the Finance Committee transferred about $4,000 to supplement the town's appropriation. But Cardillo conceded that the excess orders and overbilling by the two vendors were partially to blame.
Cardillo denied accepting any single order exceeding $10,000, which would have required a request for three bids, according to state law.
As Fuster pointed out, Cardillo had received several favorable evaluations from town leaders.
Clarence Fanto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @BE_cfanto or at 413-637-2551.
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