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New Mendon fire chief lays off half of full-time force

Move comes days after 10 call firefighters resign

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MENDON- Less than a week after 10 call firefighters resigned over the appointment of a new fire chief, a veteran lieutenant and the president of the local firefighters union were laid off yesterday.

Recently appointed Fire Chief Ernest Horn, who also serves as police chief, laid off Fire Lt. Richard R. Corcoran and Firefighter Robert E. Caron III yesterday afternoon. Although they will be paid through Friday, the two men were immediately placed on administrative leave and their last day at work was yesterday.

Chief Horn said the layoffs are the result of a shortfall in the budget. Last month, town meeting voters refused to transfer $14,000 from a free cash account to pay a new deputy chief, who already had been hired.

He characterized both firefighters as "dedicated and passionate members of the Fire Department" and said they will both be missed.

"This is an unfortunate situation," he said, "but as chief I am required to live within the budget that is appropriated by the voters."

Lt. Corcoran served more than 23 years as a call firefighter and three years as a full-time firefighter, and Firefighter Caron began his service in 1991 as a call firefighter. Both were appointed to full-time status in 2001.

Firefighter Caron said last night that the layoffs have nothing to do with the budget or the recent town meeting vote.

"This was just a total vindictive act from the Board of Selectmen against the Fire Department," Firefighter Caron said. "The selectmen wanted me and Rich fired from the word go. It all had to do with a personal vendetta set forth by the selectmen. I feel the chief was appointed and charged with dismantling the Fire Department."

The Board of Selectmen appointed Chief Horn as fire chief in February, and he hired Mark Poirier, a veteran firefighter from Blackstone, on March 21 to serve as deputy chief.

At the end of March, special town meeting voters defeated an article to transfer $14,000 from the free cash account to pay the new deputy fire chief. Firefighter Caron said that Chief Poirier was hired under false pretenses because any new position is subject to approval of funding for the position at town meeting.

"None of the full-time firefighters could start before the money was appropriated by town meeting," Firefighter Caron said. "They hired a guy without funding being in place to save the new deputy chief position. Every other person hired in this town is subject to approved funding at town meeting. So basically, they let go two three-year, full-time guys to cover his salary."

As far as recourse, Firefighter Caron said options are being explored and declined to elaborate.

Chief Horn said no one asked questions at the special town meeting as to what the repercussions would be if the $14,000 transfer were not approved.

"The people have spoken," Chief Horn said. After crunching the budget numbers, he said, he didn't see an option.

Chief Horn said that Firefighter Caron and Lt. Corcoran volunteered for the layoffs, preserving the jobs of the department's other two full-time firefighters. Firefighter Caron confirmed that he and Lt. Corcoran volunteered for the layoffs.

"We're in the brotherhood," he said. "The other two guys are single-income head-of-households. I have another source of income and Rich is single. Rich and I basically took the hit for our brothers."

The department will see big changes by the end of the week. Not only are Firefighter Caron and Lt. Corcoran already gone, but the 10 resignations of the call firefighters are effective Friday.

Nine call firefighters submitted their letters of resignation March 30, and the 10th call firefighter of the department's 17 call firefighters resigned March 31.

Another call firefighter attempted to resign last week, but his resignation was not accepted. Both Firefighter Caron and Chief Horn declined to give that firefighter's name last week, but yesterday, Chief Horn said Firefighter Wayne Kimball, who has served the town for more than 20 years, was that person. It was unclear last night what his status is, but Firefighter Caron said he expects another resignation of a call firefighter this week.

Fire Chief Charles D. Johnson, 41, who has served since March 2001, was placed on work-related medical leave until his term expires June 30, and the three-member Board of Selectmen appointed Chief Horn to that position Feb. 2. Chief Horn also has served as the town's police chief since 2003.

The frustration over the appointment of Chief Horn has been building for some time. The Mendon Permanent Firefighters Association hired a lawyer and charged in a compliant March 2 to the Massachusetts Labor Relations Commission that the town had violated the law.

The union charged that the town violated state law by refusing to bargain in good faith with the union, changing the Fire Department's regulations, and increasing the job responsibilities and workloads without notifying the union and providing it with an opportunity to bargain over these changes. Chief Horn said he will vigorously dispute the charges.

Firefighter Caron said the day ended on a memorable note yesterday. He said all the firefighters who are leaving the department, including the two remaining full-time firefighters and Chief Johnson, as well as all their families, assembled for a final department photo. Firefighters wore full turnout gear, and the group posed in front of the firetruck.
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