LACONIA — With one comment on Monday night, Councilor Bob Hamel infuriated members of the firefighting community, the family of a late local resident and relatives of a firefighter who lost his life in a diving accident.
He also insulted Fire Chief Ken Erickson and had negative words about Massachusetts.
A video of Hamel’s remarks was posted online and by Thursday he was being roundly criticized on social media and letters to the editor, with some saying he should apologize and others calling for his resignation.
Firefighters union president Jason Griffin and Hamel were having a heated discussion during a public comment period at the City Council meeting when the comments were made. There has been friction between the council and the department about overtime money for firefighters and a failed proposal to privatize the emergency medical service.
“You guys need to calm down, you really do,” Hamel said. “You’re out of control over there and that comes from the top down, from a chief who says he does not answer to the council. It’s a Massachusetts attitude and it needs to stop.
“I know you guys think you can walk on water, but there was a man in this town a long time ago who said he could walk on water and he tried it up on Weirs dock and he didn’t.”
Firefighters thought Hamel was referring to Fire Lt. Mark Miller, who died March 11, 2004, in a dive training accident at The Weirs.
“That’s out of line,” Griffin said. “That needs to stop. A dead fireman, that’s how you’re going to talk to me?”
Hamel later walked up to firefighters in the council chambers and said he liked Miller. He said he was referring to Calvin “Red” Dunn, a colorful local man who once said he could walk on water and tried to do so without success at The Weirs.
Hamel later said he meant no disrespect with the remark but that it was intended to point up the danger of an inflated sense of self. He also said that, in retrospect, he could see how the remark was open to misinterpretation.
Contacted Thursday, Hamel said he feels bad about the whole situation but didn’t want to comment further.
Mayor Ed Engler, who was at the council meeting and has reviewed the video tape, said in a statement that Hamel's comment was not about the firefighter who died in the diving accident.
"Councilor Hamel is a good man," Engler said. "Like all of us, he is accountable for the things he said but should not have to answer for things he DID NOT say, or even think."
Hamel also has some support in the community.
In a letter to the editor, Warren Murphy credited Hamel for speaking out about overtime costs in the fire department.
“I would suggest that if the discussion continues as it should, the overtime pay issue will seem minor compared to other excesses there,” Murphy wrote. “Tempers erupting at City Council meetings is not a bad thing and I would suggest is long overdue.”
Kelsey Sewell, a daughter of the firefighter who lost his life, criticized Hamel in a Facebook post.
She said her father was a hero who worked to protect the Lakes Region.
“To hear Councilman Hamel mock the death of my father who protected this city for as long as he did is truly disgusting,” she said.
“Seems it might be time to find a new body to replace Councilman Hamel as he is clearly not able to express his opinions in a mature and professional manner.”
Gayle Miller, the late firefighter’s wife, encouraged people to watch the video of the City Council meeting themselves and draw their own conclusions.
“I do know that he owes a few people an apology, the Laconia Fire Department, my family, the family of Red Dunn, if his comments are truly about him, the entire state of Massachusetts and especially Chief Ken Erickson, who is truly one of the finest people I have ever met,” she said.
Miller said it was a “very poor choice of words no matter who the subject was.”
Laura Dunn, Red Dunn’s granddaughter, also took issue with Hamel’s comments.
“My grandfather did a lot for this community, he was always in parades, he gave out Christmas trees to families that couldn't afford them, he was vibrant, silly, spoke his mind, always gave a helping hand and he was a veteran,” she said.
“You do not speak of the dead in a negative way at all no matter what. This was beyond disrespectful for all families involved, the city of Laconia, the State of Massachusetts. Councilman Hamel should resign immediately.”
Fire Chief Ken Erickson said many people are looking for an apology from Hamel.
He said he walked out of the council meeting because he was disgusted with Hamel’s comments, including personal criticism of the chief.
“He basically said I was out of control and talked about a Massachusetts attitude,” Erickson said. “He insulted me several different ways.”
He said firefighter morale, which has been low, has now come up a bit.
“The fact that Hamel has kind of been humiliated at the national level makes them feel pretty good,” Erickson said.