The long-bubbling distrust and disrespect between the Gloucester Fire Department and the City Hall corner office of Mayor Carolyn Kirk, simmering hot as ever over her selection of an outside candidate to become the city's new permanent fire chief, finally imploded Monday with Kirk's ousting of Deputy Steve Aiello from his post as acting fire chief — and her naming another "outsider," retired Needham Fire Chief Robert DiPoli, as acting chief between now and the end of June.
While debate may still rage over the Memorial Day actions of honor guard firefighters whose behavior threw the final sparks on this relationship — and while there is enough blame to be spread around in the aftermath of this fiasco — the fact that Aiello was at the scene of the firefighters' demonstration and, according to photos, appeared to participate in aspects of it truly left Kirk with no choice but to make a leadership change.
But, as the mayor, new Acting Chief DiPoli, firefighters and others pick up the pieces from this political and departmental conflagration — and even as new questions now loom over Kirk's choice of Michigan's Eric Smith for the permanent job (see news story, Page 1) — a clear picture has taken shape:
A new leadership for the city's Fire Department is now in place. The old ways of doing things and getting things done should be relegated to the past. And a new vision of Gloucester's Fire Department and its future can begin to take shape, with a leader who has no ties to the cliques, alliances and personnel entitlements of the past.
That's not something to fear. It is, especially for residents who are — and should be — demanding more open fire stations and better safety coverage — something to welcome and embrace. And the department would do well to do so as well.
It's to Aiello's credit that, a day after being demoted from his acting chief's post, he acknowledged that he understands why the mayor made the move. Despite earlier questions regarding the nature of the firefighters' action, the comments by union chief Phil Bouchie — that the action was not aimed as a protest against Kirk's selection of Smith over Aiello as permanent chief, but at the mayor's and administration's initial plan to shamefully cut the Vietnam Memorial program out of the city's ceremonies — at least concedes it was a demonstration.
It's OK for citizens to protest at events. And it can be OK for city, state or federal employees to protest on their own time, and when they're not representing the community they serve. But for an honor guard — in full uniform, representing the city at a public event — to turn its backs on the mayor both during her welcoming address and, worse, during the laying of the memorial wreath, can certainly be read as inappropriate and an act of insubordination. And for Aiello, a former union chief, not to order his forces to cease and desist indeed represents a "leadership issue," as Kirk put it.
Given Bouchie's comments — and several firefighters are veterans — there's a good chance none of this might have happened had the mayor and administration not essentially dissed the city's Vietnam veterans with the absurd initial parade and ceremonial schedule. Yet that still doesn't excuse the honor guard's action at such a solemn occasion.
Perhaps above all, their actions showed that, thanks in part to a horribly skewed contract, they feel they hold all the cards. And that's partly because one of their own has always been in charge, with neither acting chief Aiello nor three-year-interim Chief Phil Dench having the permanent status to carry out changes anyway.
Kirk's firm action Monday morning should signal loud and clear that those days are over — that a new era and a new workplace culture for the city's Fire Department is about to begin.
That should be good news for the city and its residents alike.