Stockbridge Select Board chair: No cause for alarm after fire chief booted, volunteers resign

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This story has been updated to clarify the numbers of firefighters on duty.

STOCKBRIDGE — The town's Fire Department is "basically OK" despite the dismissal of its fire chief and resignation of at least a dozen volunteers.

That was the message of reassurance delivered by Select Board Chairman Donald Chabon on Wednesday, a day after the board fired Chief Ernest "Chuckie" Cardillo, prompting the resignation en masse.

Chabon told The Eagle that response time to calls is "apparently very good; as good as it has always been," citing an update he received from Police Chief Darrell Fennelly.

Assistant Fire Chief Peter Socha offered a similar assessment, Chabon added, noting that the department responded to two calls Tuesday evening and Wednesday afternoon.

"I'm monitoring nonstop the security and safety of the Fire Department," he said. "If there was a real issue, we would do something about it."

Selectman Terry Flynn said there are now 14 experienced active members, including three certified EMTs. He noted that four firefighters who had left in past years have returned.

"I'm happily surprised," he said.

The Select Board on Tuesday voted to fire Cardillo in response to concerns about purchasing and the way he had handled himself in the department while serving under the acting leadership while he was on partial administrative leave as chief. Cardillo, who also is a selectman, did not vote.

At least a dozen firefighters loyal to Cardillo left their gear at the firehouse Tuesday night in a show of solidarity, according to Matthew Szwyd, the ousted chief's son-in-law and one of the volunteers who quit. He questioned as "wishful thinking" reports that the department has stabilized.

Meanwhile, the town is facing the prospect of legal action in response to Cardillo's dismissal.

"My client has asked me to take whatever steps [are] necessary to enforce his contract with the town," Cardillo's attorney, Robert Fuster Sr., told The Eagle on Wednesday. "It will be a lawsuit for breach of contract or whatever I might have to do under state statutes."

A written decision, expected next week by Town Counsel J. Raymond Miyares and then signed by the two selectmen who voted to fire the chief, will trigger the legal action, Fuster said. Any possible counterclaim filed by the town to recover money "scammed" by two vendors during Cardillo's tenure would have "no basis in law, contract or any other theory," he added. "Zero."

Fuster said the Select Board vote was largely a political decision.

"The selectmen were not happy that the fire chief is also a selectman, and they tried to resolve this before I became involved with Chuck," he said. "They wanted him to resign as selectman in a proposed amendment to his fire chief's contract."

Flynn responded that his philosophical view, first stated in a letter to The Eagle in 2014, questioned how a department head or other town employee also can be on the Select Board.

'All for show'

Fuster also decried Tuesday's evidentiary hearing as "grossly adversarial, more so than it had to be, because it was political." He maintained that with Cardillo not voting on his own case, Chabon and Flynn had decided ahead of time to oust the fire chief.

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"It was all for show," Fuster said. "They had made up their minds; end of story."

Cardillo told The Eagle that he would try to continue serving on the Select Board but had not made a final decision.

"It's 50-50," he said. "But we'll see if we can accomplish anything, though the town is not going to let this go."

He indicated that if he does decide to step down from the board, he would do so well ahead of the May annual town election so candidates could run for the seat and the town could avoid a special election if he waited longer.

During the hearing, which preceded Tuesday's vote, Miyares presented extensive research and documentation on the "scam" that led to Cardillo's dismissal. After his report, Chabon and Flynn asserted that Cardillo cost the town $83,000 in overbilling and excess shipments of department supplies for six years because of the prolonged "scam" by two New York state vendors. They argued that he failed to stop or report the "scam" until recently hired town accountant Ray Ellsworth spotted it last November.

Flynn also cited reports he had received from acting Chief Neil Haywood and Socha that Cardillo had been "reluctant" to cooperate with them and to "comply completely and energetically with the tasks he had been given" during his two-month suspension as chief.

But Cardillo, who was placed on paid, partial administrative leave in early December, responded that Flynn falsely had accused him of encouraging "resistance" in the department to Haywood and Socha, the interim leaders. Cardillo denied that accusation.

Chabon also maintained that because Cardillo also has been a selectman since 2015, he was knowledgeable about municipal budget accounting practices, financial procedures and procurement (purchasing) policies.

Cardillo disputed Chabon's contention that he had refused to take instructions from the interim chiefs until Town Administrator Danielle Fillio had urged him to cooperate and fulfill assignments, insisting that he did "every assignment that was asked of me from day one."

During his suspension, Cardillo was instructed to work a day shift at the fire station, respond to calls and continue to conduct inspections, as well as handle any other tasks assigned by Haywood and Socha.

Cardillo acknowledged that he had changed the department's computer password because it was "written in the desk drawer, so everybody could get on it," and said that he informed Haywood of the new password upon his request.

Defending his client, Fuster cited Cardillo's decades of service as a firefighter. "The only complaint I'm hearing is that he got scammed successfully."

The attorney acknowledged that Cardillo "absolutely should have" intercepted and disclosed the excessive supplies and overbilling.

"But you compare the overall picture of his service to the town as chief, running the fire company over here to these minuscule problems over here," he said. "One doesn't even rise from the table, and the other goes through the ceiling."

Laying the groundwork for a likely lawsuit against the town, Fuster cited Cardillo's contract, stating that "he can only be fired for good cause, and I don't even think you're close to good cause and hopefully you won't take a drastic step in violation of his contract."

Fuster acknowledged that his client "did screw up in a minor way," but asserted that it was not malicious.

"He's learned his lesson. ... Nothing like this would happen again under his watch," he said.

"I can't tell you how many times he has told me how stupid he feels and wished he had handled it differently," Fuster said. "I think he's served his time."

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com, on Twitter@BE_cfanto or at 413-637-2551.


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