Two separate meetings were marked by tense exchanges between Chilmark Fire Chief David Norton, his supporters, and the board of selectmen.
Last week, during budget talks between selectmen and the finance committee, Norton asked for a pay raise and a department lieutenant left the room upset after advocating for him. The impassioned subject returned this week when the selectmen convened Tuesday evening. After long and often edgy exchanges peppered with accusations from the audience that the chief was enduring an interrogation, selectmen agreed to explore boosting Norton’s pay once his job description was amended by the human resources board.
Norton said due to frequent alarm calls, being responsible for two stations, five vehicles, 20 volunteers, and three specialty vehicles, the chief’s job goes far beyond the hours budgeted. “This is not a part-time job anymore; this is not a volunteer job,” he said. “I’m getting $37,000 a year for full-time work with part-time pay.”
Norton said he’s putting in 52 hours per week. “It’s kind of ridiculous that a parking attendant makes more per hour than I do,” he told the board.
Selectman Jim Malkin questioned the request for $62,000 per year.
“We absolutely appreciate what you do,” he said. “I don’t understand where this number came from.”
The $62,000 is based on job duties and comparison to other town jobs, Norton said.
Selectmen said there is a process to deciding wages for town employees, and Norton could not create a number on his own.
“You guys have given him nothing,” Fire Lt. Jeremy Bradshaw said. “You have not been on the chief’s side for years.”
Malkin disagreed. “I have never not been on the chief’s side, and I have never been asked, as a selectmen, about his compensation,” he said.
Bradshaw’s remarks were not directed at Malkin, but rather at the committee as failing to support the chief. “We can’t get money from the town to get stuff that we need,” he said, referring to a utility rescue vehicle that was purchased with funds raised by the fire department.
“He gets paid like a crossing guard at a high school,” Bradshaw said. “You guys pay him like he’s a part-time terrible employee. He is the chief of your fire department.”
Bradshaw left the room, commenting on how “ridiculous” and “irritating” it was.
The value of Norton to the town was lauded, but the committee explained that a process for a pay increase is required. Selectman Warren Doty recommended a subcommittee be formed in the next few days to evaluate other jobs in the town, and come up with a suitable number for Norton. Finance advisory committee members Vicki Divoll, Bruce Golden, Malkin, and Norton will review the request.
‘Spanish Inquisition’ in Chilmark
This week Norton again pressed the town over what he saw as an overdue pay increase. He reiterated his argument that every year the hours he’s forced to put into the job swell due to more inspections and alarm calls, and mounting work stipulated by state and town law.
Norton said he would like to be adequately compensated so he can afford to remain in Chilmark — “the town I was born in.”
“I don’t think anybody in this room can live on $37,000 a year and if you do, more power to you,” he said. “I’m looking for a fair shake.” Norton said he’s made several pay inquiries with various boards, committees, and departments without luck. The finance committee’s integrated meeting with the selectmen last week was his first breakthrough.
“First, I appreciate what you do and I appreciate what all the fire people here do, and I hope that people don’t think that this is a ridiculous process,” Malkin said, “but there is a process in town that we owe to all the townspeople, just as you have a duty to serve.”
After poring through Norton’s records, Malkin said back in 2007 the human resources board allotted the chief up to 22 hours per week and thereafter he began to exceed those hours. He asked Norton if he informed the town when he began to exceed more than 22 hours a week.
Norton responded by saying he was a “doer,” and as the head of the fire department he had difficulty requesting permission to fulfill his job and that the overtime hours crept in incrementally. His pay has been increased from time to time, after he sought help from the finance committee.
In response to the mention of the finance committee, Malkin asked who Norton reported to.
“You guys,” Norton said, “but we don’t communicate very well. We haven’t for years. It doesn’t matter who’s sitting there.”
Malkin reminded Norton that his compensation last year was actually $42,254.
Norton qualified the figure by pointing out part of it stems from inspection fees.
“Are you aware that in West Tisbury and Aquinnah the fire chiefs do not get additional inspection as salary or as compensation?” Malkin said. West Tisbury Fire Chief Manuel Estrella III receives a stipend of $45,000, he said.
Norton said he couldn’t speak about Aquinnah, but knew the financial mechanics governing West Tisbury fire chief’s compensation were different than his own and involved a pension from another town job that precluded him receiving inspection fees. He also said Chief Estrella wants a pay bump to $50,000.
“We’ve got six towns, six different personalities, six chiefs, with six different situations, okay?” Norton said.
The audience included Chilmark firefighters, some dressed in formal white shirts pinned with badges. Some grew intolerant of the questions leveled at Norton and began defending him.
“I think he shouldn’t be questioned so severely,” firefighter Nancy Polucci said.
“No one’s being questioned severely,” chairman Bill Rossi said.
“Sure sounds like it,” firefighter Gary Robinson said amidst a chorus of similar comments.
“Sounds like a Spanish Inquisition,” Menemsha resident Annette Cingle said.
“It’s embarrassing,” Annie Bradshaw, spouse of Lt. Jeremy Bradshaw and secretary of the Chilmark Firefighters Association, said. “And you can’t say you didn’t know.” She pointed to a 2016 email that identified issues with Norton’s pay scale and went on to castigate the selectmen and the town for what she deemed a lack of respect for Norton’s work and the “public” cross examination she felt he was being subjected to.
“I’d just like to see a process…where he doesn’t get overlooked again,” Lt. Chris Smith said. “Because at the [finance committee] meeting it was brought up that because he was stipend, he wasn’t subject to the review of all other town employees. He’s obviously a town employee.”
Selectman Warren Doty said looking into an increase in Norton’s stipend was justified and that his communication with Norton may have broken down over a past dispute about a potential fire station site. Doty went on to say entertaining Norton’s request for $62,000 amounts to about a 70 percent increase and that 30 percent came across as more reasonable.
Lt. Scott McDowell countered that Norton deserved $110,000.
Malkin later said Norton’s job could be reconsidered as a contract position or a graded step position or a salary position as opposed to a the present stipend.
“I’m completely open with what makes sense with what we’re asking you to do as fire chief in this town,” he said.
While the room didn’t completely simmer down toward the close of the agenda item, it did so enough that human resources chairman Jane Greene was able to agree to swiftly evaluate and update the fire chief’s job description with Norton’s input. She further agreed to return to the selectmen with an amended job description. The selectmen agreed to make a pay determination upon review of the new description.