As Firefighters Local 1647 continues its contract negotiations with the Board of Selectmen and Town Manager, there is probably no one more anxious for things to be settled than Fire Chief Mike Hazel.
Hazel finds himself squarely in the middle of a situation that has grown contentious (according to one source, acrimonious) and surprisingly public in recent weeks.
On one side are Hazel's staff, who he commands and, many times, works alongside with lives at stake. On the other side are the people the chief answers to and who set his budget.
Predictably, the chief is declining to take sides or even talk about the contract battle.
"As I understand it, the negotiations are still ongoing. I think it would be inappropriate for me to comment," said Hazel.
At the middle of the contract dispute is Article 23 of the existing contract that calls for specific minimum staffing requirements at each of the town's three stations and calls for the temporary closure of either the North or South "sub stations" if those staffing requirements cannot be met.
As a matter of public safety strategy, both Chief Hazel and former Chief Richard Mackey chose South Station as the sub station to close.
In an open letter to residents published on Patch, Town Manager and the Board of Selectmen explained that town negotiators are looking to remove Article 23 from the contract to give the Fire Chief latitude to staff the stations as he believes is needed and appropriate. Town officials believe that type of fiscal/staffing flexibility will go a long way toward all three stations remaining open.
Local 1647 has taken the position that removing Article 23 is a non-starter. In a blog post on Tewksbury Patch, Local 1647 called for $350,000 to be restored to the Fire Department overtime budget to maintain staffing at all three stations year-round.
The union suggested that if the town does not alter its position, residents should do the same thing at the upcoming Annual Town Meeting that they did at the 2012 Town Meeting -- take action to reduce the amount of money being put into the stabilization fund with the goal of having that money allocated to the Fire Department overtime budget.
In their open letter, Montuori and the selectmen called that a band-aid approach that didn't deal with the root issue.