Larchmont Appoints Paid Fire Chief; Many Volunteers Resign

by Judy Silberstein

(May 17, 2007) On Wednesday, May 16, Larchmont’s Village Board unanimously approved the appointment of Lt. Rich Heine as the first paid chief of the Larchmont Fire Department since 1935, despite continuing opposition from the volunteer fire fighters, many of whom resigned in response. Lt. Heine’s appointment overshadowed the other major news: Larchmont will be receiving $2.5 million from Westchester County’s Legacy program for improvements to Flint Park, including creation of an artificial turf playing field. In addition, the board voted to add a sidewalk on Locust Avenue leading to Flint Park.

Other Board News:

$2.5 Million Legacy Grant for Flint Park Turf Field & Improvements: Negotiations have concluded, allowing Larchmont to receive funding from Westchester County in return for the Village assuming responsibility for maintaining the stretch of Palmer Avenue within its borders and for agreeing to have 35 more units of affordable housing within five years (with an extension allowed). The county will first fund a complete renovation of Palmer, with Larchmont arranging for the work to be done. Mayor Feld said Fields for Kids has already held two fundraisers to help with park projects at Flint and Lorenzen that are likely to cost a total of at least $4.5 million.

Locust Sidewalk: Working with the Traffic Commission and a group of residents, the board has developed two options for increasing pedestrian safety and calming traffic in a block leading into Flint Park. Parking would be allowed only on the south side, and a sidewalk would be built on the north. One option would include a grass buffer next to the walk; another would not. Board members will review bids before deciding on the final design.

Farmers Market to Reopen June 2 - More Vendors, Longer Season: In its first year, the market had an average of 1200 people attending, with a high of 1434 on July 15. The market will open with 50% more vendors and new wares, including: fresh fish from the east end of Long Island; meat; sauces, Indian chutneys, soup and salsa. Chef Matthew Karp of Plates will offer cooking demonstrations for opening day, and at least two music events are scheduled for later in the summer.

Reminder on VOL Memorial Day Parade: Thursday, May 24

The board had been poised to appoint Lt. Heine in early April, but pulled back to allow for public input and the possibility of forging a compromise that would improve day-to-day management without alienating the volunteers. (See: VOL Opts for 11th Hour Postponement on Hiring Paid Chief.) Now, many weeks and many meetings later, the board heard one last round of comments before voting unanimously to appoint Lt. Heine as chief. The appointment is effective May 16 on a provisional basis pending his passing the next chief’s exam administered by New York State, probably in January. His annual salary will be $115,000.

Lt. Heine, now Chief Heine, said he was committed to creating a combination fire department that would serve as a model and would involve leadership from both volunteer and career staff.

The Board’s Views

“I was quite hopeful that a compromise could be reached,” said Trustee Anne McAndrews as she prepared to cast her vote. “But what prevented a compromise were the same reasons that brought us here in the first place: a lack of trust and lack of respect.”

Trustee Jim Millstein, left open the door to a possible merger with the Town of Mamaroneck or “other larger entity” in the future, but said “that’s tomorrow’s business” while fixing the broken structure of the department is today’s.

This was “the most difficult decision” for Trustee Marlene Kolbert in her five year on the Village Board (and six years on the Mamaroneck School Board), and a most difficult initiation for Trustee Richard Ward, beginning his first term.

Mayor Liz Feld summarized, “In the end, after all our analyses and reviews,” the board felt it should be one person’s full-time job to manage a department with a $2.4 million budget, 15 career firefighters, dozens of volunteers and millions of dollars in equipment.

She expressed confidence that the outgoing chief, Chris MacDonald, former Chief Brian Payne and other volunteer leaders would help ease the transition, and that there would be sufficient coverage from the career staff, remaining volunteers and mutual aid responses to ensure the safety of Larchmont residents.

Some Support for a Paid Chief, A Possible Law Suit, & Many Resignations

In the last round of comments, the board received some support from Tom Curnin, husband of former Mayor Miriam Curnin, who noted “the department is broken and has been for some time” and called Lt. Heine an “excellent choice.” Another resident, Bill Glasheen, concurred that “the department is broken” but recommended defining and addressing problems with “what we have now.” He commended Lt. Heine, but disagreed with hiring a chief from within the department. “He shouldn’t be chief in Larchmont.”

Signaling the possibility of a future lawsuit, attorney Katherine Zalantis, filling in for her partner Steven Silverberg, questioned the board’s authority to appoint a chief not previously nominated by the Fire Council, the department’s governing body comprised of volunteers. The statute the board is relying on allows only for the hiring of firefighters, she argued. To appoint its own chief, a village government must first abolish its fire department, an action subject to a vote by the electorate.

“If we have to, we will raise these legal arguments to the judge,” said Ms. Zalantis.

Village Attorney Jim Staudt reiterated his disagreement with this line of reasoning, which had been raised on April 12. “This isn’t a legal issue in my mind – it’s a question of policy,” he said.

The Fire Council confirmed that they had retained the firm of Silverberg & Zalantis, but as of Thursday evening no decision had been announced on proceeding with legal action.

What was confirmed was the resignation of many of the volunteers.

“I’ve tried and I’ve tried and I’ve tried to explain to this board what it takes” to motivate and retain a volunteer department, said Ned Benton, a former Larchmont Village trustee and 10-year volunteer in the department. He was the first of 7 volunteers to submit their resignations effective as early as June 16. Also resigning were Daniel Heubel, Angelo Mancino, Harold Duell, Sean Ryan, Sebastian Gonzalez and Jim Sweeney, a former fire chief.

Following the meeting, Bobby Gallin, Brian Carp Smith, and Gary Kaplan said they too would resign within a month. First Deputy Chief PJ Abrahamsen said he would stay “a minimum of thirty days until I feel they have enough coverage.” Others were taking a “wait and see” stance, including some who are responsible for overseeing the financial and physical assets of the four companies – hose, engine, hook and ladder and patrol. Second Deputy Chief Greg Hibbard said he plans on “continuing and seeing how things go.” Agreeing to stay and “give it a shot” were Mike Williams and Carl Cacciola. Others were not ready to announce a decision, including Mike Wiener, a former chief and former VOL trustee, and Tom Broderick, the volunteer's choice for chief who was rejected by the board.

“There is complete uncertainty as to how many people are responding now, 30 days from now or beyond,” said Mr. Sweeney. “We just don’t know.”

The newly designated chief appeared in the company room, mingled with the volunteers and encouraged them to work with him. In accepting the position, he had stressed there is “much to be done” to define the duties of the chief, to figure out an alternate structure for the Fire Council, and to make volunteering in Larchmont a better experience, among many other tasks.

The next few weeks and months will reveal how many volunteers will remain and how the new chief will cope with what everyone agrees will be a very difficult job.