Leadership void in Chilmark

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What an embarrassing couple of weeks for the Chilmark board of selectmen.

First they raise the issue of a Tri-Town Fire Department, an idea to open discussions with boards of selectmen in Aquinnah and West Tisbury about joining forces. It’s actually a good idea to explore, but the selectmen floated the idea without a key first step — consulting their own fire chief, David Norton. And bringing it up while he was on vacation gave the appearance — intended or not — that they were trying to keep him out of the loop.

Board members say they meant no disrespect to Norton by not consulting him about the Tri-Town idea. It was brought up in the context of a discussion about a new fire station, something else the town has embarrassingly dragged its feet on.

Then the board was publicly scolded for not treating Norton fairly when it comes to money. According to the chief and his confidants, the town is paying him what amounts to the hourly wage of a parking attendant at a town beach.

Selectman Jim Malkin said the chief’s pay has never been raised as an issue before the board. Sadly, that’s not true. According to an email from 2016 provided to The Times, the issue of Norton’s pay was raised to Malkin; Norton was not being paid what the writer felt was commensurate with the hours he was putting into the job.

“His average weekly hours for the year 2016 was 38.5 hours with a Salary of $37,000 that is an hourly wage of $20.03,” the email stated. The amount is $1 less than a lifeguard makes at Lucy Vincent Beach, according to the email.

Malkin responded to that email, pointing out that a compensation study was underway which would compare Chilmark salaries to the other five Island towns, that there was a process in place, and steering Norton to the town’s procedures manual for the process of how to have his pay reviewed.

It’s no wonder Lt. Jeremy Bradshaw walked out of last week’s meeting, commenting how “ridiculous” and “irritating” the discussion was with the board.

On Tuesday, the board, under heavy pressure from the town’s fire department and department supporters, agreed to put together a committee, led by human resources board chairman Jane Greene, to look at the chief’s compensation compared with other towns.

Letting these issues get to this point is the board of selectmen’s responsibility.

Meanwhile, the fire station is an absolute disgrace. Just take a minute and scroll through the photo gallery attached to our online story about the station having asbestos and you’ll see that it’s in terrible shape. The conditions are crowded, and the restroom makes a porta-potty look glamorous. In fact, a porta-potty offers more privacy.

The cramped quarters and the disrepair tell just part of the story.

Town leaders have known about a potential issue with asbestos in the building for more than 20 years. And, more recently, there have been concerns raised about a coating of dust that’s found daily on the trucks and other equipment in the fire house. The conditions are so bad that members of the Tri-Town Ambulance crew don’t want to use the facility.

On Tuesday, selectmen finally did the right thing and authorized the hiring of one of the two companies that have put in bids to investigate hazardous materials in the building. It was the right thing to do, but you have to wonder why it had to get to the point of push coming to shove.