The Tisbury selectmen voted a maximum age of 65 for its firefighters on Tuesday night, at the recommendation of the town’s attorney — and to the dismay of about 10 firemen in attendance.
The pressing question of whether fire captain Michael Carroll — who turned 65 this month — would have to leave the department had a more popular outcome. Mr. Carroll will be exempt from the new policy, which is effective only for firefighters turning 65 on or after Oct. 1.
“Mike’s one of the best pump operators in the town of Tisbury and to see him go would be a tragic loss,” fireman Jesse Steere told the selectmen. “The guy’ll beat me out of bed any day of the week.”
Mr. Carroll has been on the department for 45 years. He is captain of a company that consists of 11 men and two pumper trucks.
State law requires that uniformed members of a paid fire department retire by the last day of the month they turn 65. In Mr. Carroll’s case, that would have meant Sept. 30. But since Tisbury pays only a small stipend to its fire fighters, who are on-call, members of the board of selectmen and the fire department questioned whether the law would apply to Tisbury.
“I understand town counsel is paid to err on the side of caution,” board chairman Thomas W. Pachico said. “I don’t think we have a problem at all because we’re a volunteer department.”
In addition to questioning the town’s obligation to comply with the state law, the selectmen and firemen also questioned the principle of forcing out veteran firefighters.
“I don’t think a retirement policy should be based on age alone,” assistant fire chief Thomas H. Colligan told the selectmen. “The knowledge and skill they give our younger people should be applauded, not put out to pasture.”
There will be more 65-year-olds in the fire department’s future.
“The fire department’s getting older in general because it’s so damn expensive to live here,” Mr. Pachico said.
But in the end, the board also erred on the side of caution and voted the policy into place. Selectman Tristan R. Israel refused to vote yes or no on the policy because his colleagues, Mr. Pachico and Denys Wortman, voted against his motion to form a committee to further research the issue so the policy might be dropped in the future.
Mr. Israel proposed that the committee consist of one selectmen, the town treasurer, the town administrator and any interested members of the fire department.
Mr. Pachico and Mr. Wortman supported the research, but said they did not want to have a formal committee, since that would require posting meetings, keeping minutes and having a quorum. They preferred that an informal group pursue the matter.
“I think that’s bad government, doing it that way,” Mr. Israel said.
The selectmen called this week’s special meeting after Tisbury fire chief John F. Schilling informed them at their regular meeting last week about town counsel Michelle Randazzo’s opinion that the town should adopt the policy.
Chief Schilling also told the selectmen that he had asked counsel if there was a way to keep Mr. Carroll on the department.
Ms. Randazzo determined that the way to keep Mr. Carroll on the department was to establish the policy, but with the language that effectively grandfathered Mr. Carroll. Town administrator John R. Bugbee explained that because of the department’s questionable status as “paid,” Ms. Randazzo felt that they were bending the law within reason.
Instead of voting then on the policy, the selectmen scheduled the special meeting this week to hear feedback from the firefighters themselves.
The selectmen also questioned the uncertainty evident in Ms. Randazzo’s opinion.
“I don’t think [Ms. Randazzo] knows whether we’re in compliance or not,” Mr. Pachico said. “State laws are gray to keep the lawyers in business,” he added.
The firemen, selectmen and town administrator expressed concern about whether they would be able to revoke the policy down the road, since in its essence, it would be accepting a state law. The selectmen struck the language in the policy drafted by town counsel that referred to the state law itself and to the department as “paid.”
There were a number of suggestions as to how the town might circumvent the state law down the road.
Mr. Steere suggested that the department forgo the stipend and instead get health insurance from the town — or simply get no compensation at all.
“If it’s a simple thing like not getting paid, I think a lot of people in the department would go for that,” Mr. Steere said. “The only reason we’re doing this is because [our] heart is in it. It’s not for the money.”
Mr. Wortman suggested that firefighters who turn 65 be named consultants for the town, although he was not sure whether a consultant would be allowed to run a pump truck.
Mr. Schilling said that he asked town counsel if Mr. Carroll could simply not receive his stipend and thus avoid the state law, but Ms. Randazzo did not give a direct answer.
Several firemen pointed out that other towns have fire departments with members over 65 years old.
“There are other Island towns that are in non-compliance, let’s put it that way,” Mr. Bugbee said.