Capping many months of what some Bridgehampton Fire Department members have called “turmoil” in the department, two Bridgehampton Fire District commissioners resigned at a board of commissioners meeting last Wednesday, August 22.
Jeffrey Louchheim and John Muse both stepped down from the five-member board at the meeting, leaving Chairman Steve Halsey and commissioners Raymond Topping Jr. and Fred Wilford to guide the district. Neither former commissioner attended the meeting, but instead submitted resignation letters to the board, which voted to accept them.
Mr. Louchheim, who was elected to the board in 2007, said this week that he will be moving out of the district soon and felt now was the appropriate time to resign, especially in light of what he termed a “division in the board.”
Frustration has been brewing in the fire department for months due to a struggle for control of the department between department officers and the fire district’s elected commissioners. Matters came to a head in recent weeks with a disagreement over disciplinary actions taken against Chief Tim Doran on a number of issues, which led to him being suspended. Other members are angry about other related issues—including the disappearance of a portion of the minutes from a July Fire Council meeting where the matter involving the chief was discussed.
Those struggles and controversies, at least in part, led Mr. Louchheim to resign.
“It’s the direction that the board is headed into … it seems to be going into the micromanagement of the fire department,” Mr. Louchheim said. “It really isn’t why I became a board member.”
Prior to 2011, the department’s governing body, the Fire Council, which is made up of 10 department members, two chosen from each of the department’s five companies, could suspend department members for misconduct or incompetence, according to the district’s bylaws. The fire district’s board of commissioners took back that responsibility last year in response to a large number of what they said were retaliatory suspensions by the council. Those in danger of suspension are now entitled to a public hearing before the board of commissioners.
The chief, who serves as the president of the Fire Council, and assistant chiefs also may suspend members based on misconduct or incompetence pending the approval of the fire commissioners, according to state law.
“Unfortunately, my belief is that the district should be somewhat separate from the department,” said Mr. Louchheim, the brother of Press News Group Publisher Joseph Louchheim. “The department has lost its ability to discipline its own members without going up to the fire district. The members are between a rock and a hard place.”
Mr. Muse did not return calls for comment on the reason for his resignation.
At last week’s meeting, Mr. Halsey, when asked, said it was “undetermined” how the board would deal with the vacancies, but he noted that there is a district election slated in December.
Mr. Doran was suspended by the Fire Council in July for his management practices. The council also made a recommendation to the commissioners to uphold the suspension. But Mr. Halsey maintained that the council followed incorrect procedure in suspending Mr. Doran—council members should have first submitted the suspension recommendation to the board of commissioners before suspending him. On August 8, the commissioners lifted the suspension, saying his actions did not merit such severe discipline.
Members of the council said last week that they were not made aware of the new process or told they were going about it the wrong way.
“[Steve Halsey] is ultimately responsible and never made sure everybody had an absolutely clear understanding of how it is supposed to work,” said EMT Terry Hoyt. “If our responsibility is to make sure [the bylaws are] written correctly, but discipline is not our responsibility, then what is the purpose of a council meeting?”
Ms. Hoyt and other department members said the commissioners upheld another suspension of Mr. Doran in January, for exceeding his authority in regard to a letter he wrote to the East Hampton Townwide Dive Team. They said they didn’t understand why that suspension was supported but the most recent one wasn’t.
Mr. Halsey maintained that a resolution outlining the new procedure for suspending officers was given to the council members and the chiefs, and that it was not up to the commissioners to “monitor them.” “We entrust that they follow the guidelines, and 99 percent of the time they do,” he said.