Vacant fire post raises heat in East Spencer

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 1, 2009

By Steve Huffman
EAST SPENCER ó After a closed-door meeting that stretched more than an hour, members of the East Spencer Board of Alderpersons announced Monday they hadn’t made a decision on who to hire as the town’s new fire chief.
Then, when about 12 firefighters complained about the board’s lack of action, members appeared on the verge of reversing themselves and naming a fire chief.
“I know there’s an urgency,” Mayor Erma Jefferies told the firefighters. “I know you want to hear something tonight.”
What board members finally promised firefighters is that a new chief will be selected by March 17. This comes after the position has remained vacant for more than a year.
“Put yourself in our shoes,” Firefighter Travis Phelps pleaded with board members. “Without a mayor, who would lead the town? As firefighters, we can’t make decisions without a chief.”
When they first emerged from their closed-door meeting, board members said they still felt a need to meet with the three firefighters ó Darren Dearth, Josh Smith and Chip Wells ó who had applied for the chief’s job.
But the dozen firefighters who had remained in the lobby and just outside the front door of Town Hall while board members met in private were clearly frustrated by the lack of a decision.
Phelps was one of several firefighters who addressed the board and who spoke in favor of hiring Dearth.
“We haven’t had a chief since I’ve been here,” Phelps said. “I strongly recommend you look at Mr. Dearth.”
Dearth, several of the firefighters at Monday’s meeting said, is a former East Spencer police officer who is now a deputy with the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office. They said Dearth is also a respected member of the East Spencer Fire Department.
Dearth, those firefighters said, is in the hospital or he would have been at Monday’s meeting. Smith, one of the other three firefighters to apply for the chief’s job, said at the meeting that he was withdrawing his application and supporting Dearth.
Wells, the third candidate, was working Monday night, but someone reached him by phone and he promised to hurry to Town Hall so that he, too, might withdraw his application and support Dearth.
But Jefferies told firefighters to get the message to Dearth that no such action was necessary, that a three-member panel of board members would still have to meet later this week with the applicants before a decision is reached.
Jefferies did, however, ask the 12 firefighters ó the crux of the department ó for a show of hands concerning who supported Dearth.
Almost every hand was raised.
Board member John Noble said that, traditionally, the recommendation of firefighters has gone far toward selecting the new fire chief.
“In the past, the department (members) picked and the board either supported or they didn’t,” Noble said.
He said the recommendation of firefighters was crucial.
“We’re not going to be over there working with them,” Noble said.
But board member Theodore Gladden said he was reluctant to immediately name a chief after firefighters got up in arms over the matter. “I feel a certain amount of strong-armed tactics,” he said.
Several firefighters disagreed, saying they weren’t trying to force board members into a decision, only pleading with them to make one.
And several board members said they were greatly impressed with the turnout of firefighters and their unanimous support for Dearth.
“This is the first time I’ve seen unity from this group,” said board member Barbara Mallett. “That makes us feel good.”