Biddeford Fire Chief Scott Gagne, shown here in this 2018 Journal Tribune file photo, is the subject of a vote of ‘no confidence’ by Biddeford Career Firefighters Local 3107. City Manager James Bennett defended the chief and said issues raised by the union are the subject of labor negotiations. Dina Mendros Photo

BIDDEFORD — The city of Biddeford’s firefighter paramedics have filed a unanimous vote of no confidence in Fire Chief Scott Gagne, citing issues  with recruitment and retention of personnel, lack of training and a lack of leadership, among other issues.

Members of the Biddeford Career Firefighters Local 3107 of the International Association of Fire Fighters filed the no confidence vote with Biddeford City Council and City Manager James Bennett at a City Council meeting on Tuesday, Jan 7. Local 310

7 President Paul Froman said the union members had hoped to present a statement to the council but were told they couldn’t because the matter was a personnel issue.

“This has been building over several years,” said Froman, who has been a member of the department for 10 years. He said the union members tried to have discussions with Gagne “but were unable to get anywhere.”

City Manager James Bennett, in a statement issued Wednesday afternoon, Jan. 8, said the submission of the no confidence letter was the first he’s heard from the union regarding Gagne.

“Last night, the local fire union issued a public statement regarding the leadership of Biddeford’s Fire Chief,” said Bennett in the written statement. “This public statement was provided directly to the Mayor and City Council. The union has not raised issues regarding the Fire Chief’s performance with the City Manager’s office at any time, even though the City Manager, rather than the council has direct hiring and firing authority of the chief. (My) office has reached out to the union to seek a meeting to better understand any concerns they may have related to the specific job performance of the Chief. The fact that the union directed its statement to the City Council meeting to make their point, when they know that the Mayor and City Council have virtually no authority over the Fire Chief, should not be overlooked by the casual observer.”

“In my time as City Manager, I have always seen Chief Scott Gagne advocate to improve the department with a laser focus on providing the very best service to the residents of this community,” Bennett continued.“As a lifelong resident, a taxpayer and a parent to young children within the community, the citizens Chief Gagne serves are often friends and relatives, and their care and safety under his leadership is his top concern.”

Froman, the union local president, said the department is “very understaffed” for the size of the community and that a couple of vacancies in the 42-person department have gone unfilled for a year. He estimated that the department has had a 60 percent turnover in personnel since Gagne became chief in 2016. He acknowledged that about one-third of the turnover was due to retirement, but said some retirees told him they left because they could. He said others have gone to different departments in Maine and elsewhere, and some have decided to change careers.

Froman said the no confidence vote was unanimous.

Gagne, reached by phone on Wednesday, directed questions to Bennett.

Gagne has previously advocated for additional personnel.

In an April 2018 Journal Tribune story by Dina Mendros, Gagne said he had recommended to the Biddeford Finance Committee that more personnel be hired. At that time, there were 40 full-time firefighters to fill four shifts. But because of time off and other types of absences, only eight people were on duty per shift for 78 percent of the year in 2017, he said.

According to statistics supplied by the fire chief for the April 2018 Journal Tribune story, the last time staff members had been added to the department was in 2005; four people were hired when a second ambulance was added. That year, Biddeford Fire Department handled 2,062 calls. In 2017, the number of calls more than doubled to 5,368.

In 2018, when passing the 2019 fiscal year budget, the City Council approved two additional firefighter positions.

In the no confidence letter, firefighters said policy changes have lowered both the physical requirements for new hires, as well as the level of training, education and prior experience, exacerbating the inadequate staffing levels the department is already facing.

Firefighters say training sessions are often canceled or replaced with other tasks.

“We are in a situation now where new employees can’t perform at the level required, which endangers the lives of everyone we are sworn to protect,” the firefighters stated in the letter.

They took issue with policy changes, and with some financial decisions.

“We often find that we do not have funding for more training or to replace and repair needed equipment, but there is money for new furniture and televisions in the administration offices and new iPads in all the command vehicle.”

Communication is also an issue they said.

“It’s been nearly two years between officers’ meetings, and we have not had a department-wide meeting since (Gagne) took the position of fire chief,” the letter states.

Michael Crouse, president-elect of the Professional Firefighters of Maine, represents Biddeford Local 3107 in labor relations. He said the letter of no confidence submitted by the local is separate from labor negotiations.

“The vote of no confidence has no connection with ongoing contract negotiations or other labor disputes being processed through the appropriate administrative processes available,” Crouse said.

He said the firefighters’ contract has been expired for about a year. “We’re on a course, we’re going through the process,” Crouse said.

Bennett believes there is a connection.

“A vote of no confidence is usually caused by one of two issues: legitimate concerns about the leadership or as a tactic by a union during difficult labor negotiations,” Bennett wrote. “As is often the case in the latter scenario, the leader (in this case Biddeford’s Fire Chief) is used by the union as a disposable pawn in order to seek leverage in the negotiations process.”

He said issues raised by the union are the subject of ongoing contract negotiations.

“The issues of primary concern to the city in the negotiation process are entirely focused on making sure the citizens get the very best available service when it is needed,” said Bennett. “While the union’s statement seeks to place blame on the Fire Chief, the city is concerned that the union has repeatedly resisted proposed common-sense solutions that would improve the city’s ability to deliver life-saving services to the community.”

Bennett said the city, like others across the country, is dealing with issues of retention and recruitment and will work to address those issues and seek partnerships with the employees and the union.

“City leadership is proud of the individual members of the department. We know that we have talented and capable employees that do great things daily,” said Bennett. “We are requesting that the union focus more on the safety of the citizens of the community and less on gaining leverage in ongoing union negotiations.”

Froman said firefighters are looking for change.

“We truly believe we are in a spot where safety is definitely a concern, and if nothing changes, we’ll be in a pretty bad spot,” he said.

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