Seward brothers defend Chilmark fire chief

Fire dept. veterans from long ago criticize ‘blatant disregard’ of chief’s service.

People continue to come out in support of Chilmark Fire Chief David Norton. - Rich Saltzberg

Updated Feb. 14 @10:30 am

Chilmark Fire Department veterans David and Douglas Seward lent their support to Fire Chief David Norton’s quest for better pay with Facebook comments they posted on Sunday and Monday.

The two retired captains condemned their former colleague’s treatment by Chilmark selectmen. Like Norton, the twin Seward brothers served in the Chilmark Fire Department in the 1960s and 1970s, and eventually became captains. Both served with Norton under the late William Smith, annual reports show. Chief Smith served roughly three decades before Norton assumed his role in 1999. While the brothers long ago moved on from the department, their posts mark a fidelity to Chilmark, its fire department, and its chief that hasn’t weakened over time. The trigger for the posts appears to be two recent meetings where Norton made his bid for better pay public.

On Jan. 30, Norton made a request for a stipend increase at budget hearings held between the selectmen and the finance committee. Tense discussions ensued between town officials, Norton, and Lt. Jeremy Bradshaw, who was advocating for Norton. At loggerheads with town officials, Bradshaw said, “You guys pay him like he’s a part-time terrible employee, not a good employee. He’s the chief of your fire department.” He then hammered the table with his fist and walked out of the room.

The following week Norton appeared before the selectmen during their regular session and reiterated his request with nearly a dozen firefighters and other supporters seated in the audience behind him. After a go-round where the selectmen asked Norton questions about his position as chief and his defenders in the audience accused the selectmen of interrogation, the board agreed to re-evaluate what Norton is paid upon receipt of an updated job description from the chairman of the personnel board.

In a 2016 Times profile focused on their love of collecting all things vintage Vineyard, the Seward twins described themselves as “crickers,” kids who grew up by the Menemsha Creek, in a neighborhood they described as “Crickerville.” Among the crickers, they said, was David Norton, who with his father, helped enlarge the building that houses their collection.

Uneasy at posting on Facebook, David Seward wrote that he was moved to do so because Norton’s situation “hits close to home.” Seward went on to write that Norton rose to occupy his old lieutenant position when Seward and his brother were simultaneously promoted to captains. He described Norton as “dedicated” and as skilled as anyone in the department at running Engine 3.  

He often went above and beyond his normal duties and could be relied upon to handle the truck on his own at any time.”

When a move to Vineyard Haven caused him to leave the department, Seward recommended Norton for captain, he wrote. “They honored my recommendation. I knew that someday David would [possibly] rise to chief of the department. I was not surprised when he called me to tell me the news.”

David Seward wrote that while old pay at the department was “token,” things have “drastically changed” since that era.
“Chief Norton not only deserves a salary commensurate with his duties comparable to other towns,” he wrote, “but the respect and gratitude for a man who continues to serve his hometown through many years. The selectmen should put aside their ‘process’ and do what is right and just. If they do not then the very essence of fairness will be lost forever in one of the richest towns in the commonwealth.

A sea change is afoot on-Island, Seward wrote. The selectmen’s “obvious blatant disregard for the service of a long-time member of the fire department and a hometown native” offered, in the context of Seward’s post, some evidence of this.

“Many of us who were born and brought up on the Vineyard have sensed the changes in Island government,” he wrote. “The Island is a different place now. Our sense of control over our birth place is waning at an ever-increasing pace. Change is inevitable, but the speed of that change is concerning to many of us. There are many concerned Islanders following this issue. I urge the Town Fathers to take note.”

Reached by telephone on Tuesday, Seward said of Norton, “We’re very good friends.”

Seward has known Norton since the crib, he said. As a 7-year-old Seward walked up the road in Menemsha to a guest cottage of Norton’s grandfather’s where Norton, less than a week old, was nestled by his young parents, he said. Later in life their friendship became a working relationship involving building and caretaking projects, he said.

Norton does a tremendous amount of work for the fire department and is exceptionally experienced, he said.

“When I saw the article — that really set me off,” he said.

Selectman Jim Malkin, who did much of the speaking about Norton’s pay at the two recent meetings, has taken the brunt of the rebuke from Norton’s allies at those meetings, despite going on record repeatedly to express his and the board’s appreciation for the department and its chief.

In contrast to his brother David’s long, reflective statement, Douglas Seward’s Facebook post was short and emphatic and called the selectmen by their seldom used, alternate titles: Pretty embarrassing for the Fire Commissioners to allow this travesty to continue,” he wrote. “Pay the man! What is wrong with you people! $37,000/year! Chilmark is in the top 5 richest towns in the commonwealth. POTUS vacationed there and you pay the Fire Chief that! Make it retroactive back a couple of years. I can’t believe you made David plead for this!”

Reached by telephone last week, personnel board chairman Jane “Jennie” Greene said she expects to come before the selectmen with an overhauled job description for consideration at the board’s next meeting (Feb. 20). Greene said she will seek Norton’s counsel in reworking the job description and also seek the advice of at least one other public safety official. A longtime Chilmark resident, Greene has been on the personnel board since the late 1990s, she said. One reason Norton may have been overlooked during a fairly recent review of town positions, she pointed out, was because the parameters of that review did not encompass the type of compensation arrangement he has.

“The human resources board was not required to look at any stipend position and David’s is a stipend position,” she said.

The personnel board, however, does not govern how much money the fire chief receives, she said. Per Massachusetts general law, the selectmen set that compensation.

Updated to include additional commentary from David Seward.