LACONIA — Firefighters' union president Jason Griffin criticized City Councilor Bob Hamel at Monday night's City Council meeting for saying most firefighters don’t live in the city, and the argument was on.
At one point, Hamel made a comment regarded by some as disrespect for a firefighter who died in a diving accident. He later said the remark was misinterpreted, was about someone else and that he meant no disrespect.
Fire Chief Ken Erickson grabbed Griffin’s arm and tried, without success, to pull him away from the podium. The chief ended up leaving the meeting and didn’t come back.
This was the latest skirmish in a conflict over firefighter overtime, a proposal to privatize the ambulance service and a cut in the fire department’s budget.
Fire officials speak of low morale among firefighters and the union’s Facebook page criticizes City Council actions. Councilors have questioned whether the fire department has done enough to limit overtime, which costs $500,000 yearly.
Two weeks ago, Hamel said only five members of the 40-member Fire Department actually live in the city. He said most firefighters “don’t have skin in the game” because they live elsewhere.
That comment brought Griffin — president of Laconia Professional Firefighters and a member of the city fire department — to the podium in the City Council chambers on Monday night.
“The overall morale of the department is pretty low right now,” Griffin began. “The budget cuts have a big effect on it. But it’s more so comments from members of the council and the mayor himself.
“Mr. Hamel, your comment in the paper recently about ‘Not having any skin in the game,’ that cut our members pretty deep. We do have an overwhelming majority of our members who do not live in the city.
“I chose not to move to the city for specific reasons. But that doesn’t mean I don’t dump my heart and soul into this city day after day, from holding elderly people’s hands while they are dying, to seeing kids at their worst.”
Griffin said he and other firefighters shop in the city, participate in community events and fundraisers. He said their integrity is called into question when councilors accuse them of regarding overtime as a built-in entitlement.
Hamel responded by criticizing Griffin for posts on the union’s Facebook page.
“Your comments on your web page are nothing but criticism and scare tactics to the public,” Hamel said.
Hamel accused Griffin of scuttling a proposal by Brewster Ambulance Service of Weymouth, Massachusetts, to handle emergency medical transport in Laconia, a job that is now done by the fire department.
Mark Brewster, president of the company, on June 11 withdrew his proposal, saying he did not want to compete with firefighters for the work. Many off-duty firefighters work for his business.
“What about you calling Mr. Brewster down there and threatening him that if he comes up here, that the fire department down there is going to quit his service?” Hamel asked.
Griffin denied making such a threat.
“Well someone from your union did,” Hamel responded.
“You guys need to calm down. You really do. You really do. You’re out of control over there and that comes from the top down.
“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.”
A small commotion then began, with Erickson trying to remove Griffin from the podium, while Griffin asked Hamel what man he was referring to, and others in the audience saying, “Are you kidding me?” and “That’s out of line.”
Mayor Ed Engler implored, “Let’s control ourselves here.”
The firefighters thought Hamel was referring to Fire Lt. Mark Miller who died March 11, 2004, in a dive training accident at The Weirs.
“You want to have an open conversation and work together,” Griffin said. “That’s out of line. That needs to stop. A dead fireman, that’s how you’re going to talk to me?”
Hamel later walked up to the firefighters and said he knew and liked Miller. He said he was referring to a self-proclaimed minister named Red Dunn, who once said he could walk on water and tried to do so without success at The Weirs.
On Tuesday, Hamel said he mentioned the anecdote only because it points up the danger of having an overly inflated sense of self, but that, in retrospect that he could see how the comment could be open to misinterpretation.