Mayor crosses swords with fire department
Larsen considered dumping Penner as fire chief
A meeting intended to settle differences between Peabody firefighters and emergency medical personnel instead erupted into unrelated conflict about control and autonomy of the fire department.
While firefighters and EMS crew members appeared to resolve most, if not all, of their discord at their April 4 meeting, the discussion took a turn when Mayor Larry Larsen entered the fray.
“May I speak?” he said. “I am here as mayor period, not for EMS.”
Larsen took responsibility for failing to tell fire chief Mark Penner about a decades-old agreement to allow EMS personnel to sleep at the fire station while waiting calls.
“That was bad on my part,” he said. “I think we all have a little bad on us.”
When Penner made a comment about Larsen assuming something from over 30 years ago was still intact, Larsen fired back.
“Why are you so hostile?” he said.
That became apparent when another firefighter brought up an errant phone call Larsen made in which he asked a former firefighter if he would become chief if he got Penner out.
However, Larsen had misdialed, the firefighter said, and it was not the former firefighter on the line, it was pastor Jim Pohlman.
Pohlman was at the meeting and confirmed the accuracy of the firefighter’s statement.
“Now Larry, you called me and asked, ‘if I got Penner and Rose out would you be chief,’ and I said I didn’t have any clue about fires,” Pohlman said.
Larsen initially responded that the call to Pohlman was unrelated, but recanted after Pohlman spoke up.
“Well, can we work this out,” Larsen said. “That’s why I asked other people to try and figure this out. I hope we can take care of this problem.”
Larsen then took a different tack, asserting he had the authority to make such a change.
Armed with a sheaf of papers, Larsen said city ordinances authorize the mayor to annually appoint the fire chief.
The initial reaction to this statement left firefighters in a state of confusion, as evidenced by their facial expressions.
“As far as I know, the governing body right here appoints the chief, that way hasn’t been done in years,” said Cook.
Larsen was asked why he would feel it necessary to ask someone else to become fire chief. He responded by reading another ordinance indicating his power to appoint fire chief and captain.
“If you’re not reappointed, you’re gone,” Larsen said.
“He wants to get rid of us, that’s all there is to it,” said captain Steve Rose.
Penner took advantage of the slight pause following Rose’s retort.
“If you take the vote away from these guys they’re going to ask themselves, ‘what’s the point,’” Penner stated.
“Would you guys work for another guy?” Rose asked of fellow firefighters, and an answer was quickly presented.
“I only work for my chief,” Matt Litton said. “The day he’s gone you can have my radio back.”
Arguments also erupted over allegations Larsen had spoken negatively about the department in public.
Claims of firefighters letting oxygen out of tanks, and the way they have responded and dealt with individual calls.
The meeting became so intense at this point that Debesis felt the need to interject.
“This is getting pretty heated and I want to make it known that this is no longer EMS versus fire department, its mayor versus fire department.”
Larsen asked for the department paperwork indicating bylaws and structure. Cook said that in the years he’s been with the department, he’s never seen any such paperwork.
“So basically you’re going on tradition,” Larsen asked.
Larsen again brought up a specific fire from the past. Penner denied him access to the building after the state fire marshal told him via phone that the building wasn’t secure enough to allow access to anyone outside of firefighters.
Larsen eventually called Penner after that to apologize after discovering Penner was right, but claimed that he had been given the wrong information from an outside source on scene, also via phone call.
“I could have had you arrested for hindering fireground operations,” said Penner as his voice raised.
Penner said Friday that while he didn’t sense a lot of remorse on Larsen’s part, he hopes eventually they can resolve these conflicts.
“It will be interesting to see. I don’t think it’s over,” he said. “Hopefully we can move forward and try to mend this whole mess.”
When asked for comment on Friday, Larsen too, stated he hopes that a resolution will be found.
“After the meeting was over we shook hands and walked away with a better future in mind,” he said. “Many items of conflict both current and past were discussed and hopefully by airing these issues out we can go forward together.”
Last modified April 11, 2018