CHESTER – When fire chief Rich Antoine met with the board of selectmen at their Jan. 16 meeting, he was looking for resolution on recent issues involving his rescue dog, Blaze. And while the board gave no definitive answer, the general tone was that the issue had gotten out of hand and at least one selectmen had overstepped his bounds as a board member.
In January of 2013, after being accepted into New England K-9 Search and Rescue, Antoine met with the then board of selectmen to ask permission to bring his rescue puppy in training to the firehouse. The board approved and things went smoothly for a few months as the dog went through rigorous training and became a popular addition to the firehouse.
But when the Chester first response truck was noticed in the background of a news report on the search for a missing 5-year-old girl in Gilmanton last September, some complained. It cost taxpayer dollars to move that truck up north and it wasn’t available in town for response, some argued, including selectmen Rich LeBlanc and Joe Castricone.
And while some residents point to a selectmen’s meeting where the board gave approval for Antoine to bring Blaze to work, as reported in the Tri-Town Times, as proof that the chief has overstepped what the selectmen approved and should be reprimanded, those documents do not mention vehicle use. The minutes indicate that the chief said Blaze would not go on calls with him, but no selectmen decision on that matter or on vehicle use is recorded.
The selectmen’s main concern noted at the time was that the rescue work not interfere with Antoine’s role as chief and with coverage during his absence. Antoine assured them about that and pointed to his many weeks of unused vacation time.
The Tri-Town Times article indicates that the selectmen may call the chief back to discuss his dog if things became problematic, but does not indicate decisions on vehicle use or how the dog would spend his time during the day. It does state that training would occur on nights and weekends and that other than the dog’s being around Antoine at all times, there would be no impact on his role as chief.
Many residents have written to the Tri-Town Times commending Antoine for his rescue work and chastising some selectmen for skewed priorities.
On Jan. 16, Antoine asked for a resolution.
“I have a department to run, and I’m dealing with other garbage all the time…I’m tired of being in the paper over this stupid stuff. It’s getting ridiculous,” said Antoine “I need a vote from this board. What do you want? Vehicle or no vehicle? Parameters? This thing just keeps festering.”
Councilor Joe Hagan immediately summed up the matter, saying that he commended the chief for his volunteer effort, but that routine work with the dog should be done in his own vehicle. Hagan said the circumstances around the call could justify use of the town vehicle, but everyone would be better served if that could be kept to a minimum.
“I want to commend you for the dog process, the fact that you want to spend your time and human capital working with the dog for rescue. On the other hand, I think when you originally presented this, you said you were going to use your own vehicle,” said Hagan.
Though Hagan summed up the majority opinion of the board of selectmen, the discussion was only beginning.
Selectman Jack Cannon inquired about a call made by a board member to Antoine’s organization. Antoine said numerous questions were asked about the Gilmanton response and Antoine’s affiliation with the group, all documented by the person who took the call.
Antoine said the selectman asked for the call to be kept secret from him.
LeBlanc admitted to making the call, but said he only asked one question – What time was Antoine dispatched?
“Why wouldn’t you just ask the chief?” asked Cannon. LeBlanc said he had already spoken to the chief on the matter.
“So you didn’t believe him?” asked Cannon.
More than once in his tenure, Cannon has called LeBlanc out for making unilateral decisions and on Thursday, he sought clarification on repeated communication breakdowns between both LeBlanc and Castricone and others.
“Do you not find making a call like that intrusive?” asked Cannon.
“No,” said LeBlanc. “People have been asking me as a selectmen what the vehicle was doing up there. I’m a town official. I believe I have the right to do that.”
“I don’t think you have a malicious intent, but if there’s no malicious intent, I’ve got to question your rationale that you go through to reach these decisions to act on your own on behalf of the board of selectmen. We’ve had this conversation and it continues to happen,” said Cannon.
“I didn’t do anything illegal,” said LeBlanc.
“Nobody is saying you did anything illegal. It’s about a competency level, Rich, that leads you to make decisions on behalf of the town… I encourage you deeply to think inside yourself and think through the decisions you make as a board member and question whether you have that authority to make these decisions that affect all five of us,” said Cannon. “Honestly, I’d reassess everything that you thought encompasses this role and whether you made the right decision to even be a selectman.”
Cannon pointed out that Antoine seems pleased to be a part of the volunteer rescue group, and a picture of him on the group’s website shows a man smiling, something he said he rarely sees when the chief comes before the selectmen.
“There’s a pride in the way he’s standing there with his animal, and this thing that you’re doing kills that spirit. Kills it. I wish you would just reconsider it,” said Cannon to LeBlanc.
Chair Steph Landau sought a legal opinion on LeBlanc’s move because of past problems the town has faced with selectmen who don’t understand or flout the law under which boards act.
Landau read, “Members of any town board including the board of selectmen must only act as a board and must do so at meetings posted and held in accordance with the Right to Know Law. One member of the board of selectmen has no authority to control or supervise the work and performance of town department employees. Outside of the board meetings members have only that authority which other members have voted at a meeting to delegate to that member.”
Landau said he was very concerned with LeBlanc’s actions, in part because of cases he’s seen with past selectmen.
LeBlanc apologized to the board and to Antoine after Landau spoke, but Cannon was still concerned.
“I believe your apology is sincere, but you’ve got to change, Rich,’ said Cannon.
Cannon also took time to comment on the general nature of liaisons in town.
Though Landau was careful not to name names, one of the former selectmen who has put the town in hot water stood up to speak in favor of LeBlanc’s actions.
That man, Leroy Scott, whom the town refused to indemnify after a related court case, has been pushing for the selectmen to address Antoine, but was roundly criticized by Landau for his attacks on the chief and other employees, and then branched out into commenting on the skewed priorities of those chastising Antoine.
Cannon shook his head as Scott complained and Landau took issue with his sarcasm, stating that people don’t deserve to be attacked, regardless of whether that person is liked or not.
“I would like to say that Mr. Cannon here is a little off the rocker tonight,” said Scott, asking how LeBlanc was supposed to find out anything if he didn’t ask any questions.
“You of all people should remember that,” said Landau emphatically. “You ask questions as a board…And by the time we get people to understand that, I hope I’m still alive…When we don’t do it legally, we end up in court.”
Scott said the selectmen were not making Antoine stick to his original claims about the dog.
Landau responded that the town accepted the dog on town property and to be moved in town vehicles. “I understand we didn’t clarify it all the way down, but it was 5-0 when the selectmen allowed it,” said Landau. “The question that really continues to come up is this trip to Gilmanton.”
Landau stated that it was foolish for Antoine not to have called and told a selectmen he was taking the truck to the rescue, but that wasn’t the point.
“A 5-year-old child was missing, and I would hope that if one of my grandchildren or one of my great-grandchildren were missing, that he and everybody else would respond immediately. And if he needs my permission to go up to Gilmanton, as of right now he has every bit of it. And I think we’ve discussed this matter ad nauseam,” concluded Landau.