By Scott Jenkins
EAST SPENCER ó Town officials have fired Skipper Davis from his post as fire chief, throwing gasoline on controversy that has raged for months between the town’s fire department and town hall.
A meeting Monday night to introduce the department’s interim chief ó Adam Ryerson, a former chief ó turned into a heated argument between members of the department and top town officials.
The meeting, and the dismissal of Davis ó who showed up for the meeting but was barred by town officials ó left a number of firefighters threatening to quit the department or saying they don’t know if they’ll continue serving the town.
The turmoil “is going to rip this department apart,” Deputy Chief Kevin Nail warned.
And it left the mayor and a member of the town’s Board of Aldermen at odds over the role a board-appointed committee should have played in the decision to relieve Davis of his duties.
By the time the meeting ended, around 10 p.m., the town had decided not to appoint Ryerson interim chief, but instead named Nail to that post “in order to keep some unity in the fire department,” Mayor Erma Jefferies said.
“Adam and I talked and right now we just need to hold tight,” Jefferies said. She said the town will advertise for a new permanent fire chief and that Nail, who is liked by the firefighters, will be able to apply.
“As long as Kevin is in charge, we will stay,” said Lt. Michelle Davis, the department’s medical officer. She also said that Skipper Davis ó who firefighters say has improved the department ó will remain as a volunteer firefighter.
Jefferies emphasized, though, that as chief, “Skipper is gone.”
It’s actually the second time in less than two months Davis has been fired. He appealed after being called into town hall and informed of his dismissal by Jefferies and Town Administrator Richard Hunter in June.
Davis said at the time he believed his firing was retaliation for informing an insurance company, and the Rowan District Attorney’s office, that the town had spent grant money meant for new turnout gear on a pumper truck.
He said town officials told him his termination had to do with his spending money in the fire department without proper authority and spending too much money on gasoline for a town-owned vehicle he drove.
Jefferies declined Monday to discuss specifics of the firing, citing personnel information protections in state law. She emphasized, though, that the decision had been made before Davis went public about the grant money.
“It has nothing to do with retaliation,” Jefferies said. “It’s some personnel matters that could not be resolved.”
A three-member grievance committee to which Davis appealed recommended 2-1 that he be kept on as fire chief with some restrictions and corrective action to “chastise” him for mistakes he’d made, Alderman John Rustin said.
Rustin sat on the committee along with board members Phronice Johnson and Barbara Mallett. Rustin said he and Johnson voted to “retain him under restrictions, tell him our expectations of him.”
“I felt that Skipper wasn’t totally in the wrong,” Rustin said.
Jefferies said that the grievance committee wasn’t charged with deciding Davis’ fate as chief, only with deciding whether the town properly followed its procedures in his dismissal. When the board decided in executive session last week to fire him ó after getting a report from the grievance committee ó it was only upholding its earlier decision, she said.
But Rustin said that’s not how he understood the committee’s responsibility.
“We was informed to decide whether Skipper did wrong,” he said.
The dozen or so upset firefighters who gathered for the meeting Monday evening at the Fire Department Annex off Long Street appeared unanimous in their belief that Davis did nothing wrong, and that the town was at fault.
Jefferies started the meeting saying it was called to introduce Ryerson as interim chief. Ryerson was chief for three years but resigned in 2006, saying he couldn’t devote necessary attention to the part-time position and his full-time job as a firefighter in Concord.
Ryerson sat quietly as Jefferies tried to introduce him, but he was about the only one.
Members of the department ó which relies on part-time employees and volunteers ó immediately began asking, often shouting, about the firing of Davis and questioning Jefferies about the grievance procedure. Several argued the town had ignored its own personnel policies in dismissing Davis without taking the proper steps, such as issuing written warnings.
As the debate grew louder and more emotional, Jefferies told at several people ó including Rustin, at one point ó that they were “out of order” and insisted the meeting was not called to address their complaints.
At one point, Dwayne Davis, a volunteer firefighter, got up, left his pager on the table and yelled “I’m out of here!” Nail left at one point, too. Rustin implored them both to stay, and they did, but the arguing continued.
Firefighters said last week that their primary response truck wouldn’t shift into gear much of the time and that another truck had to idle for several minutes so air pressure would build up in the brakes. They cited mechanical issues, medical supply shortages and other things they’d requested money for that hadn’t come through.
And much of their anger over that was directed at Hunter, the town administrator.
“We can’t work with him because he lies to us every time we turn around,” Nail said.
Hunter said town officials “fixed what we were asked to fix. We bought what we were asked to buy.”
Jefferies and Hunter have said that Davis recommended the pumper truck, which the town bought used, as the department’s top priority and that’s why the town bought it instead of the turnout gear. The board included money in this year’s budget to buy the gear ó and avoided having to repay the grant in doing so. Jefferies said the gear has been ordered, but firefighters said Monday they didn’t know how that could be since none of them had been fitted for new gear.
Hunter also said that a company the town contracts for fire engine repairs will be doing a “thorough evaluation” of problems with the department’s trucks this week. And Jefferies noted, after confirming it with the department, that even with the problems the average response time is less than 10 minutes.
Firefighters were also upset at the choice of Ryerson for interim chief. They said he didn’t perform the job well while he was chief, letting trucks go without inspections, failing to compile required paperwork and not showing up at calls.
Several said they wouldn’t work for Ryerson. Jefferies said that was up to them and as talk grew heated again, she threw her hands in the air, said “Whatever, whatever,” and walked out the door. She returned a short time later, though, and said she’d brought the purchase orders in question with her.
Skipper Davis, who came into the meeting after Jefferies and Hunter left, said his battle with the town isn’t over. He declined to discuss details of his plans, but hinted at legal action.
“At this point, I’m not going to argue with them anymore,” he said. “I’m just going to let my attorney handle it.”
Contact Scott Jenkins at 704-797-4248 or email@example.com.
By Scott Jenkins