Rockport to sign NH firm for Fire Department audit

PAUL BILODEAU/Staff photo/Rockport plans on hiring Municipal Resources Inc. of Meredith, New Hampshire, to audit the town's on-call Fire Department, headquartered on Broadway.

ROCKPORT — The town plans on hiring Municipal Resources Inc. of Meredith, New Hampshire, to audit the Rockport Fire Department.

Contract negotiations are underway. There is no word yet what the audit will cost. Selectman Paul Murphy on Wednesday afternoon said he did not have a timetable for finalizing contract negotiations, but hopes its "sooner rather than later."

Some residents are wary of the town's motivation in calling for the audit. They argue the audit could be used to squeeze out long-time fire Chief James Doyle and, down the line, replace the volunteer staff with full-time employees. Specifically, these concerned residents point to a section of the town's request for bids for the audit, which states the "primary assessor will be appointed as a temporary member of the Board of Fire Engineers." Doyle served as a board member before being placed on administrative leave  in November for a matter the town said is unrelated to the ongoing controversy over the Fire Department leadership.

Is the auditor replacing Doyle's seat on the board, effectively extinguishing his power as fire chief? Selectmen and Town Administrator Mitch Vieira say no. 

At Tuesday's selectmen meeting to discuss the hiring of MRI as auditor, Selectman Sarah Wilkinson admitted that she was initially confused about the provision. Giving MRI, tasked with reviewing the Board of Fire Engineers, a temporary seat, she said, would allow the auditor a better insight on the board's inner workings.

The appointment will be rescinded once the audit has been completed. MRI said its study would take around 20 weeks to complete.

"The Board of Selectmen appoint the Board of Fire Engineers so the assessor will not have a say/vote on whether to remove a fire chief and/or appoint a new one," said Vieira via email. 

Murphy told the Times on Wednesday that the hiring and firing of a police or fire chief is the sole responsibility of selectmen.

"Always had, always will," he said. "There is no search for a new fire chief. This audit is to make sure the fire department works as best as it possibly can. If there's a problem, the auditor is going to find it and correct it." 

MRI's audit team 

The decision to pursue MRI was made after selectmen on Tuesday interviewed representatives from MRI and John Parow of John Parow Consulting & Associates of Chelmsford, the two firms that applied for the job in December.

The auditor will be tasked with reviewing and making any improvements to the department's operations, structure, staffing, management and budgeting. The audit will also to determine whether having an emergency service director, a recently  created position that created a rift in the department', is beneficial for the town. 

MRI was represented by Brian Duggen, its director of fire services, and Doug Houghton, former chief of the Wayland Fire Department, at the meeting. The two used a PowerPoint presentation to highlight what MRI does and its plans for the audit during their interview. According to the presentation, MRI employs 25 part-time workers and has audited numerous fire departments, including multiple on-call only departments such as Rockport, up and down the East Coast. 

MRI has organized a small team to complete the Rockport audit. It will consist of Duggen, Houghton and Shawn Murray, MRI's senior public safety consultant and formerly fire chief in Hudson, New Hampshire. Former Cotuit fire Chief Christopher Olsen, will act as "boots-on-the-ground," according to Duggen. Olsen will work on site and interview Rockport firefighters, ensuring everyone at the department has a say in the audit's proceedings.

In addition to interviewing the volunteer staff, Duggen hopes to hold town hall-type meetings with the public to gain residents' input. Duggen said he's aware of townspeople's concerns and that each MRI team member was fully prepped on the Fire Department controversy. The facilitation of communication, he said, is what's needed most at the department.

"This project will focus on maintaining and expanding an on-call fire department and addressing operational (challenges) including the recruitment and retention of on-call personnel to structure a path leading to a successful future for the Rockport Fire Department," reads a PowerPoint slide from MTI's presentation. "Transition to a combination staffing model will not be considered."

Before selectmen took a vote, Wilkinson said she was concerned that a larger firm such as MRI would be disconnected during the audit process. However, after Duggen and Houghton's presentation, she was reassured the four-person team would be hands-on enough.

"For our purposes, MRI fits the bill a little more for what we’re looking to achieve," said Selectman Don Campbell. 

Selectman Ross Brackett did not share the same outlook. He believed John Parow's smaller operation would be more attentive to the Fire Department's needs. He also lamented that Olsen, MRI's "boots-on-the-ground" team member, was not at the meeting. 

The final vote to move forward with MRI was 4-1, with Brackett being the only dissenting vote. 

Michael Cronin may be contacted at 978-675-2708, or mcronin@gloucestertimes.com.

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