CENTER HARBOR — The rift between former Fire Chief John Schlemmer and the Board of Selectman that led them to part company last month apparently arose from differences between the two over the terms of the chief's employment.
The circumstances surrounding Schlemmer's departure remain obscure. The selectmen maintain that much to their surprise Schlemmer resigned abruptly on the morning of June 27, the day after the board endorsed his proposal to convene an advisory committee to make recommendations about the organization and operation of the department.
"We were flabbergasted, " said Selectman Harry Viens.
At an emergency meeting later the same day the board accepted Schlemmer's resignation and five days later appointed Leon Manville interim chief.
According to a statement released to the press yesterday, Schlemmer claims that after raising questions about his responsibilities and compensation with the selectmen, "I was given an ultimatum which no reasonable fire chief would accept." He said that after voicing his objection and requesting a meeting, the board sent me a letter accepting my 'resignation.'"
Schlemmer proceeds to explain claims that for several years he was paid under "three headings" as fire chief, supervising firefighter on call and fire inspector "in order to avoid calling me a full-time employee when in fact I was." He suggests that the selectmen took this course realizing that a full-time chief was needed, but that taxpayers would be unwilling to fund the position. "I was a full-time employee in reality," he continued, "but on the books I was being treated as a part-time employee without benefits, retirement or overtime."
Acknowledging that 28 hours per week were formally assigned to the position of chief, Schlemmer said that because his responsibilities required "additional duty" he regularly worked more than "the 40 plus hours for which I was paid under the three separate categories." Knowing this, he said that the town asked him to document the extra time, but considered it "volunteered," not subject to pay.
Schlemmer said that he discussed several options for resolving the issue "fairly and honestly," including paying him a salary equivalent to his combined hourly wages, which would eliminate the cost of overtime. Instead, he recalled that the board instructed him to limit his hours for "all services" — administration, on call, inspection and training — to 28 per week, a suggestion he said "presented an potential and immediate safety concern" and called "preposterous."
On receiving these instructions, Schlemmer said that he went to the secretary to the board, advised her that he could not work under those conditions and requested to meet with the selectmen "right away." In response, he received the letter accepting what he refers to in quotation marks as "my resignation." He said "at present I have no other recourse but to bring this to the people and if necessary to the courts.," stressing that it is a matter of public safety, not merely personal employment.
The selectmen, after accepting what they took to be Schlemmer's resignation, met that same evening with a dozen firefighters, who urged them to meet with Schlemmer to resolve their differences. Dave Hughes, who chairs the board and serves in the Fire Department, recused himself, but Viens and Richard Drenkhahn agreed to approach Schlemmer.
Last night the board met again with members of the Fire Department. Viens informed them he spoke with Schlemmer, offering to meet, but Schlemmer replied that he had retained an attorney and declined the offer.
Viens told the firefighters that the board could not discuss a personnel issue in a public setting. Moreover, he said that with the prospect of litigation there was nothing the board could say. "I don't mean to be evasive," he said. "I'm just following instructions."
Lieutenant Chris Conway asked if the attorneys representing Schlemmer and the board could meet to seek a reconciliation. "Our attorney advised against it," Viens replied.
Luke Dupuis, a local business owner, said that "the last thing you need is two lawyers in the room." He said that "it sounds like an olive branch was extended," but Schlemmer chose to hire an attorney.
"The threat of a lawsuit has thrown a blanket on the whole thing," said Viens.
Viens explained that the board intended to appoint a search committee to select a new "permanant part-time" chief. The committee would review the job description and develop a profile of the ideal candidate. then post the position and screen and interview the candidates. When Conway asked if members of the department could participate in the hiring process as members of the search committee, Viens said "that's a reasonable idea, as long as they're taxpayers. I think it would be important to get your feedback frankly."
Nevertheless, firefighters remain openly distraught over the affair. "We're hanging by a thread," said Diane Smith, a veteran firefighter/ EMT.