Published DateNORTHFIELD — Like generals fighting the last war, the three candidates vying for a seat on the Tilton-Northfield Fire District Commission — incumbent Pat Clark and challengers Jane Alden and Eric Pyra, all of Tilton — dwelt on the turmoil of the past two years while stressing the importance of looking to the future when they fielded questions from a roomful of voters at the Northfield Town Hall this week.
The turmoil arose from the commission's decision to require the successor of departing Chief Steve Carrier to reside in the district. With the appointment of Brad Ober, who found himself unable to sell his home in New Hampton, Commissioners Clark and Paul Auger, over the misgivings of Tom Gallant, chose to enforce the requirement. Faced with the prospect of dismissal, Ober moved to Tilton in February. Meanwhile, the controversy opened a rift among the three commissioners and aroused the ire of the Tilton selectmen.
Clark conceded, "I came under pressure around the residency requirement," but reminded his listeners that all three commissioners agreed to include it in the chief's contract. He acknowledged that initially the district was not precisely defined as the two towns or either a distance in miles or a response time, but insisted that the commission was entitled, if not obliged, to uphold the contract by enforcing the contract.
Alden, who chairs the Tilton Planning Board while serving on the budget committees of both the town and the fire district, said that the controversy cast a "negative light" on the commission. "The contract could have been negotiated differently," she said. When Clark interrupted to say that the issue has been resolved, she countered that "it may be resolved, but it keeps rearing its head. I'm tired," she continued, "of seeing the fire district at a standstill. The safety, welfare and well-being of our citizens have taken a back seat."
Pyra, also a member of the Tilton budget committee, said that the commission mishandled the residency issue by not properly defining the district and suggested that the controversy, which roiled the commission for two years, adversely affected morale within the fire service.
When the candidates were asked their positions on the residency issue, both Alden and Pyra answered that they preferred prescribing a response time rather than stipulating residency within either Tilton or Northfield. Pyra said he was comfortable with 20 or 25 minutes while Alden favored "not more than 30 minutes." Clark repeated that the commission chose to define the district as the two towns.
Speaking of the challenges facing the commission, Clark referred to the rising cost of health insurance and retirement contributions, both of which are beyond the control of the commission. "This is what is bankrupting communities across the country," he said.
Remarking that "there is still contention," Alden said that she would "heal the schism" on the commission while ensuring that public safety is its highest priority.
Describing himself as "an independent thinker," Pyra said that he had no connections the selectmen of either town and could rise above politics to address the the issues facing the fire district.