The Block Island Times

Sparks fly at Fire Department meeting

Treasurer Peter Greenman resigns
By Stephanie Turaj | Feb 18, 2014
Photo by: Kari Curtis File photo

Fire Chief Tristan Payne began Monday’s Fire Department meeting by announcing there would be no treasurer that evening. Treasurer Peter Greenman, who members elected to the position just last month, resigned.

“I spoke to him, and [Assistant Chief] Peter Gempp spoke to him. We were unable to come to terms for working together,” said Payne. “He formally handed in his resignation to me. I think that’s why people are here tonight.”

What followed at the Feb. 10 meeting was a disjointed discussion of accusations, questions and confusion. Several issues arose, including the departure of Greenman, the departure of previous treasurer Mike Lofaro, confusion over how the Rescue Department pays its bills, and discontent with how Payne had appointed member Howell Conant to assist with department finances. Members jumped between these topics and revisited them several times.

No final resolution was reached. However, Payne agreed to schedule a meeting with the department’s Board of Directors and Officers to handle the issue surrounding the department’s lack of a treasurer.

Assistant Chief Peter Gempp further explained the disagreement with Greenman. Gempp said Greenman had wanted to be the only one to access the department’s financial files. “We disagreed, and said that someone else should have the password in case,” said Gempp. Following this disagreement, Greenman handed in a letter of resignation.

Greenman was not at the meeting. When approached later by The Block Island Times, he stated, “If I was to be responsible for these books, then I needed to be the only one that had access. I love the organization... and I hope it can be worked out.”

Also, at the beginning of the meeting, department member Gary Ryan commented, “I was horrified to find out what happened to Mike Lofaro.”

Mike Lofaro served as treasurer of the Fire Department before Greenman was elected last month. Lofaro had chosen not to run for reappointment. No one at the most recent meeting commented on what exactly happened.

Lofaro was also not present at the meeting. When approached later by The Block Island Times, he said he chose not to run as treasurer because of his own busy schedule.

“Where’s Mike Lofaro? Where’s our duly elected treasurer?” commented Rescue Chief Bryan Wilson at the meeting. “What is our current status of bills?”

Wilson made a motion to forward the treasurer issue to the Board of Directors, and the motion passed.

Wilson’s motion read, “We respectfully petition the Block Island Volunteer Fire Department Board of Directors to conduct an inquiry into all matters regarding the current status of the treasurer, the financial files and the department bylaws.”

According to Fire Department bylaws, the Board of Directors — Vin McAloon, John Mott and John Jacobsen — acts as the oversight agency that resolves conflicts between the department members and officers.

“I’m appealing to the board to determine what the proper course of action is,” explained Wilson.

Discontent among members

At the beginning of the meeting, department member Beth Rousseau, who serves on the rescue squad, also had some comments to make.

She read from a prepared statement: “On Saturday [Feb. 8] morning, I was notified by Gary Ryan that Howell [Conant] was accusing me of moving $30,000 out of a fire department account and putting it in the training account without proper authorization. Gary told me he had been told by Board of Director member Vin McAloon who had received the information from Howell. Needless to say, I became very upset.”

“I am upset to think this department...” at this point, Rousseau became too emotional to continue reading, so she handed the statement to Gary Ryan.

Ryan continued on behalf of Rousseau: “I am upset to think this department is falsely accusing me of some wrong-doing, to what end? I can’t help but feel that this is an unprovoked attack coming from Chief Payne and Howell Conant towards myself and the Rescue Squad. I have witnessed the blatant animosity that seems to be growing from Chief Payne and Howell towards the rescue squad. We are being scrutinized and held to different rules of accountability in how we spend money that has never been an issue before.”

Rousseau’s letter finished, “If this conflict between Fire and Rescue isn’t resolved in an expedient manner, then I am forced to walk away. I cannot quietly sit by and watch this go unresolved.”

Following Rousseau’s statement, Conant refuted her accusations, stating: “First of all, what was just said is false. You [Rousseau] never came to me, instead you come to the meeting slinging mud all over the walls in front of the press... apparently I’m so unethical the rescue squad is going to quit.”

He continued, “People have said things they regret. I think this thing has snowballed out of control and we have to somehow bring it back to a manageable level.”

Conant later explained that he had asked a question of McAloon, who serves on the Fire Department Board of Directors. He said he wanted to understand the process of how the Rescue Department manages its bills and funds. The Rescue Department is part of the Fire Department, but it holds its own meetings and pays its own bills.

“I was confused and I’m still confused that the Rescue Department has a separate process,” said Conant.

“We’ve been doing it that way for the past 25 years,” said Gary Ryan. “Now it’s all being called into question. I don’t think it’s wrong; it hasn’t been wrong for the past 25 years.”

Later in the meeting, member Greta Heinz commented, “I do want to believe it’s all just a lack of knowing protocol... I think that’s where all the confusion is coming from.”

Heinz added, “It seems as if people are assuming things about other people and not talking directly to that person about it.”

Also at the meeting, Rescue Chief Bryan Wilson launched into a line of questioning regarding who has access to department financial records.

“I appointed Howell to help me at the last meeting, in front of everyone,” commented Payne.

Wilson’s questioning also prompted Howell Conant to comment, “What is this, Bryan? This is ridiculous. The chief of the department asked to get assistance, so I helped him. I don’t like this questioning process.”

Wilson responded, “I’m not being adversarial... let’s keep it on an even keel.”

“It’s hard when people are throwing daggers,” said Conant.

Also, Wilson explained that Payne had asked for help with the Fire Department budget a day before it was needed, but Wilson did not have access to the financial records.

“It is absurd and disingenuous that the chief make that demand of me in a matter that he knows I can’t possibly meet,” said Wilson.

Payne commented that he had also asked Wilson to help with the budget three months ago.

“Instead, you turned in a budget request to the council asking for $15,000 for a rescue barn,” said Payne.

Wilson later said, “At the end of the day, our focus is fire and rescue. If there’s a fire, we put it out; if someone falls, we pick them up. All this other stuff is really tertiary.”

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