Center Harbor fire chief resigns suddenly; upset firefighters pressure Selectboard for repair

CENTER HARBOR — Fire Chief John Schlemmer suddenly resigned yesterday morning, prompting the Board of Selectmen to convene one emergency meeting at 1:30 p.m. when chairman Dave Hughes said his resignation was "reluctantly accepted" and another at 6 p.m. to consider how to address the situation and hear the reaction of the firefighters.
Both Schlemmer and the selectmen declined to comment on the circumstances surrounding the resignation. But, after members of the Fire Department urged the selectmen Harry Viens and Richard Drenkhahn to seek a reconciliation with Schlemmer they agreed to meet with him. Hughes, a captain in the department, has recused himself from the proceedings.
Meanwhile, Deputy Chief Mark Ledger will be in charge of the department. However, since Ledger, like many members of the department works out of town and is not available during the daytime, the Selectboard will seek to recruit an interim part-time chief.
Schlemmer attended the selectmen's regularly scheduled meeting the night before, where the board agreed to convene a Fire Department Advisory Committee. The committee is charged with making recommendations about operations, staffing, training and equipment and prepare a strategic plan for cost efficient 24/7 fire and EMT coverage. Selectman Harry Viens said that the board accepted Schlemmer's choice of members. Viens said that Schlemmer showed no sign of what was to come at the meeting and Schlemmer said yesterday that "the meeting went very well."
Viens said that the selectmen were "flabbergasted" to learn that Schlemmer announced his resignation at the town offices at 8:15 a.m.
When the board met in the evening it was disclosed that the selectmen recently sent two letters to Schlemmer, one about a personnel matter, the content of which remains confidential and another requesting a list of all the fire permits issued. Selectman Richard Drenkhahn said that the board had asked for the information more than once and when it was not forthcoming put their request in writing.
"It's a huge loss to this town," said one EMT to open the discussion between selectmen Viens and Drenkhahn and nearly a dozen members of the Fire Department. "I'll be resigning as a lieutenant and a member, " said Jared McGrath.
"Is there anything the selectmen can do to bring him back ?" asked Lieutenant Chris Conway.
Conway went to to tell the selectmen that Schlemmer, who is part-time chief expected to work 28 hours a week and last year was paid $28,557, was both the leader and anchor of the department. Few members of the call company are available during the day, he said, but the chief responds to calls at all hours of the day and night."He was stepping over the line," he said. "Coming out without getting paid and he wouldn't go on vacation because he wouldn't go out of town."
Others spoke of Schlemmer's 40 years experience as a firefighter, which he shared with the members of his department. "He made my career," said one firefighter. "Mine too," echoed another."
"Think about it," Conway remarked. "You've the fourth of July coming next week." He reminded the selectmen that firefighters are required to be on hand during the loading and lighting of fireworks while EMT provided medical services for competitors in the road race.
Several firefighters openly doubted that the selectmen would be able to find a qualified part-time chief, let alone anyone of Schlemmer's caliber willing to devote the time he gave to the position for the compensation it offers. "Nobody said this would be easy to fix," Viens conceded.
"We're asking you guys to sit down with him and work something out," said Conway. "
"When someone resigns," Viens explained, "it poisons the well. The trust factor is lost. The answer is sure. We can sit down and do some horsetrading, but in the long-run I worry that this could blow up again."