Autumn in the North Cemetery.

Sixty miles west of Boston, Massachusetts there is the small New England town of Sturbridge. Located at the junction of I-90 (The Mass Pike), and I-84 it has become known as the "Crossroads of New England". The town was first settled over 300 years ago, and like other small New England towns it has grown just enough over the years to be in a difficult place today. How do we embrace the future without forgetting how we got to our present? How do we attract the right kind of growth, and maintain who we are? And, what about our culture out here in Central Massachusetts?

These pages will cause one to think about how to protect what we have, our future direction, and how to move on in the very best way.

Those thoughts, and other ramblings, will hopefully inspire more thought, conversation, action, and occasionally a smile...

...seems to be working so far

Monday, May 13, 2013

Crossed The Line

I don't think I have ever made a stand in favor of any particular person here in town before.  Yes, I've given my opinion about how I feel a person has performed, or has been treated, but never have I stood for, or against, the whole person.

Today, I will.

In August of 2000 I came to live in Sturbridge.  The first neighbor I met was Vernon Jackson.  "Butch", as he has always gone by, welcomed me to town in his own quiet style.  Butch is a quiet man, a loyal, and caring man.  He loves this town with all his heart, in fact, he was born right in a house on the Town Common.  Since that time, he served his country,  married the love of his life, had three children, and a whole bunch of grandchildren.  He has also been in each, and every home around the common, and elsewhere in town, helping with repairs, lending a tool, and his expertise.  Without out so much as a wince, he lent me tools, and his know how to help in my rehab of the house I once lived in.  He never expected anything in return, but instead he would invite me, and others to his house on the lake for a cookout.  He never asked for anything in return. He only gave.

He has been there to lend a hand, and to help, no matter what life has thrown your way, all his life.  That's just the kind of man he is.  Never negative.

One thing that I enjoyed hearing from Butch was the love of the towns fire department.  He was a Captain, had been on the department for decades,  and played Santa at Christmas time on the common.  His love for people showed in his commitment to keep them safe as a firefighter.

I had grown up in a town where a large group of us "townies" had begun to serve as volunteers on the fire, and police department at an early age.  I recognized the commitment, and love for the job Butch did at the fire department immediately.   That loyalty to the department, and his commitment to make others safe at risk to his own safety has only heightened my respect for Butch.

If you have ever had contact with the man, then you know I speak the truth, and if anything, I have not spoken highly enough of him.

Now, the Chairman of the Board of Selectmen, has had Butch terminated from his civilian position of Assistant to the Fire Chief he has held since January because, according to Butch, how he spoke up, and questioned the methodology, and conclusions of the report written by the consultant hired by the town.  He has also been accused of harassment by Tom Creamer.

"Harassment".   Really?  Butch Jackson?  I don't think so.  Explain this to me.

In addition to the debacle we have seen regarding our Fire Chief, and the recent announcement that he is retiring ASAP, we have the Chairman firing Butch in closed door session of the BOS.

Enough.  Now, I'm pissed.

Article published May 11, 2013

Veteran Sturbridge officer slams fire report

Chief ousted after document released


STURBRIDGE —  A longtime worker for the Sturbridge Fire Department is questioning the motives behind a controversial consultant study that resulted in the indefinite suspension of the town's fire chief.

Vernon L. “Butch” Jackson, 77, a lifelong Sturbridge resident, claims the report is part of an effort by Thomas Creamer, chairman of selectmen, to reform the town's fire agency, but which instead is creating turmoil in the fire department and the town.

Mr. Jackson also maintains that he was removed from his civilian position with the fire department because of his criticisms of the report's methodology and conclusions.

Mr. Jackson served the fire department since 1952 and was captain for 36 years, until November. He was a civilian assistant to the fire chief from January until April 22.

Mr. Jackson, of 10 Charlton St., is critical of the fire department study, which was completed March 28 by consultant Ernest Horn. In an interview, Mr. Jackson said the consultant asked his opinion the first week in April, after the study was published.

The Horn report includes details of the department's organizational structure, noting there is a chief, a captain, seven full-time firefighters, 19 call firefighters and a part-time clerk, but it does not mention the assistant-to-the-chief role Mr. Jackson provided.

In his “Fire Department Report/Operational Study 2013” to selectmen, Mr. Horn accused Sturbridge Fire Chief Leonard Senecal of a failure in leadership, saying numerous problems included “deplorable and negligent” equipment maintenance and “extremely poor morale” in the department.

Chief Senecal says he has worked diligently to fix inadequacies. He says no deaths from fires in Sturbridge have occurred since 1984, and that no firefighter has been injured because of equipment failure at a scene. As with all department heads, he said, he has been under constant pressure to keep expenses down.

Mr. Jackson said Mr. Horn showed potential bias by not contacting him until after the report was provided to selectmen. He said Mr. Horn telephoned him two days before the selectmen's April 5 public release of the report.

Mr. Horn has refused to disclose with whom he spoke on the fire department.

Selectman Mary Dowling had publicly pressed Mr. Horn for specifics, wanting to see responses to questions, to know whom he had talked to and what they said.

At the April 16 selectmen's meeting, the consultant told Ms. Dowling the information was confidential. The selectman told Mr. Horn that made it impossible for her to verify information in his report.

Mr. Jackson said he asked Mr. Horn about whether those who inspected the fire vehicles were properly trained, licensed and certified. He was not satisfied with Mr. Horn's responses.

Mr. Jackson said when Mr. Horn telephoned him in April, he told Mr. Horn “morale was good” among the call firefighters. He said their conversation lasted about five minutes.

The Horn report states there is “a complete lack of a successive command structure in the absence of a ranking department officer.” Mr. Jackson said that is untrue, that the chain of command was clearly written down and posted on the bulletin board.

Mr. Jackson's civilian job with the fire department ended when selectmen axed him during a closed-door meeting April 22.

Mr. Jackson said he was not informed by Mr. Suhoski or by selectmen that he was on the agenda for that meeting and was told after the meeting his job was gone.

“When you do it behind closed doors and not even tell me, it is cowardly; it is illegal,” Mr. Jackson said.

The retired captain said Mr. Creamer, instead of the town administrator, initiated an investigation of him involving an unsubstantiated “harassment” allegation.

With the heading “Harassment,” Mr. Creamer sent an email April 11 directing Chief Senecal and Mr. Suhoski to investigate Mr. Jackson.

“I have received a number of complaints suggesting that a civilian employee of the fire department — recently retired due to age well beyond the state mandate — is engaged in what has been described as `harassment' of on-duty members with respect to the study conducted by an independent subject matter expert … Please review this matter,” Mr. Creamer wrote. Records show that only one of the other four selectmen was copied on the Creamer email.

Mr. Jackson said the investigation was retaliation. He said Mr. Creamer wanted to silence him for questioning the qualifications, methodology and conclusions in the Horn report.

Mr. Creamer “is out of control. He is an embarrassment to the people of Sturbridge. He just does things regardless of the law. I can't figure out why. To serve 60 years and get thrown out like this is a disgrace,” the retired fire captain said.

In a lengthy telephone interview this week, Mr. Creamer responded to Mr. Jackson's statements, saying it may have been a mistake to rescind his civilian position with the fire department during executive session and that the action should have occurred in public view.

Mr. Suhoski said, “There is no exemption (to the state's open meeting law) that allows you to rescind an appointment in executive session — I have to take responsibility for that — it was a six-month appointment.”

Mr. Creamer also said it was a mistake to have hired Mr. Jackson for the civilian role in January, saying, “Quite frankly, the creation of this position was a mistake on my part.”

Asked if the harassment allegation had been substantiated, he said: “To my knowledge they were not,” adding, “I personally made no claims of harassment. I forwarded that to the town administrator.”

The chairman said: “A number of individuals … said they were subject to what they called harassment. … The individuals themselves did not want to come forward because they were concerned about repercussions.”

Mr. Creamer said his leadership is bearing fruit.

“If you fix the problem head-on, you are always going to be accused of creating turmoil. I wish other selectmen and other town administrators created some turmoil,” he said.

“Butch is entitled to his opinion. He served 12 years beyond his retirement,” Mr. Creamer said. “What's a disgrace is that since 2001, other boards of selectmen, former town administrators and the chief” looked the other way.

“That to me is the aspect of someone being cowardly, partly because no one wants to upset anybody's feelings and hold anyone accountable to state laws. This board took action,” he said.

Selectmen Vice Chairman Priscilla Gimas said Mr. Jackson “is sour grapes against the study,” adding: “if he was truly dedicated to the fire service, he would be worried about what should be done.”

Mr. Suhoski said action on Chief Senecal's future is expected during a closed-door meeting Monday.

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  1. Thank you, Wally, for your fine article. I don't know Butch Jackson personally, but have known of him for many years - always in favorable, friendly, and caring terms. This whole fire dept thing is heartbreaking, and those who have written such vicious, hateful personal comments in the Telegram have astounded me. What gives? How can they have such venom? As we all know some of the people who are acting so mercilessly call on the name of God, and sing His praises. How can you love God and hate your neighbor?

  2. I would like to apologize to the Lenny Senecal and Butch Jackson for the deplorable way they have been treated. I want to thank them for all the years they've protected this town, and applaud them for what we've seen and experienced - good results for as long as they've worked for us. Short-comings in house, perhaps, I don't know, but I do know of the good they've done, and refuse to let that stand ignored. Thank you for your service. We shall be forever in your dept and forever ashamed of the way you've been treated.

  3. It's very obvious that the ask the selectman part of the meeting went away shortly before all hell broke loose at the selectmans meeting in regards to chief senecals report being taken to task and the way he was verbally taken to the ground by our subject matter expert. He even needed a police officer at the door.. WHY does the chairman need protection or can he not handle a meeting? Now tonight as if by magic the ask the selectman is back on the agenda. Looks like mission is complete and all questions of anyone at the meeting got them thrown out, with job done we can resume the towns people the right to speak their piece. Nice town we live in. Do I hear dictator?

  4. Butch was a "first friend/responder" when I took my first job in Sturbridge .... met lots of Sturbridge/Fiskdale people since then and none better than him .............

  5. Share this with others in town.

  6. This week T. Creamer and P. Gimas are going after another target the planning board. They don't like something that occurred "at a meeting in February". They won't say what it is but everyone should know by reading the minutes Gimas said. Ordering the TA to do something about it. Gimas and Creamer are a bad combination.

  7. It is probably the meeting where Russ Chamberland was upset because the planning board's recommendations for a committee were not upheld by the BOS. The threat then was made that people were not going to be re-appointed. These two don't care who they walk on to get there! And poor Mary Redeske is clueless so she just follows their lead.

  8. The "Ask the Selectmen" portion of meetings did not "go away." They were put on hold while they worked through getting the warrant articles ready for the upcoming town meeting. Are you going to vote?

    Butch Jackson was hired for a 6-month temporary position. It's in writing, in the town administrator's report of January 2013. Butch was not "fired" - his 6 months was up.

    I am amazed, simply amazed at the comments here. They are yarns and don't contain any facts, just skewed perceptions.

    Get your facts straight.

  9. They are correct. You just aren't privy to what, how, and why.

  10. Dear Anonymous, who claims these comments are "yarns,"
    Butch's SIX months lasted from January to April 22. How is that 6 months? Talk about "skewed perceptions."
    Mr. Horne's "facts" in the report included non facts about the hose failure rate, money already granted for gear, and other non facts and fuzziness. He even refused to say HOW MANY department heads he spoke to.

  11. Well, let's think about this: Butch was in his position for four months, as the assistant to the fire chief.

    His job, "ASSISTANT TO THE FIRE CHIEF" was to assist the fire chief, right? What did he do for four months? Did he help to fix, maintain, repair, create necessary reports, help firefighters retain credentials or meet necessary state laws for certification?

    In reality, Butch seems to have skated passed the consultant's report and yet, he's complaining that he was mistreated by the BoS?

    With everyone complaining about how high their taxes are, and how high the tax rate is, and with the BoS responding by making cuts to save taxpayers money, PLUS increasing the amount of money from free cash to offset the tax rate, I find it hypocritical that people defend a "friend" who took the taxpayers for a ride for four months, and who also stayed in his position past the state-mandated retirement requirements. What is it about "state-mandated" that you all seem to overlook?

    What did Butch do for four months at the fire department, PRIOR TO this consultant's report, that would lead one to believe that he served in the best interest of the taxpayers? I see NOTHING in the consultant's report indicating he fixed, assisted, or helped in any way; yet you all are fine with ignoring these facts.

    As for the last commenter's question about the consultant's "refusal" to say how many department heads he spoke with - I'm not even going to guess about why you would try to pin down a qualified consultant with that question, when his report is clear, concise, honest, professional, and full of factual information and details - that are backed up with numerous tangible items of disrepair AND paperwork.

  12. The consultant would not tell the committee who he had spoken to. He was asked the question to corroborate the statements in the report. He could not. You saw nothing in the report because he was not interviewed. He was totally overlooked until after the report had been completed. Somebody then told him that he needed to talk to Butch.He then was called , on the telephone, and asked some questions for 5 minutes. Butch's not being in the report is the part of the point that was being made, and he should have been.

    He was overlooked, or ignored, but whatever it was, Butch was there, has a 4 decade history with the department, ad except for those 5 minutes after the report was completed, he was never spoken to. If he had been, you would have the answers to your questions.

    And, as far as taking the taxpayers for a "ride for four months", you don't know what the compensation was, and as a "civilian" in a new position other than the captains position, he was far from taking anyone for a ride.

    My name is Wally Hersee, what's yours?

  13. Butch was paid $18.81 an hour. I'll say it again: it's in the town administrator's January report, which is available on the internet.

    I choose to write anonymously; that is my right, just like all the other posters here - and I don't see you asking them for their names.

    I respect your choice to support your friend. But as I said previously, I find it hypocritical that you and others would support paying someone who should have been on state-mandated retirement in the first place.

    Also, to say that "the consultant would not tell the committee who he had spoken to" is misleading and not accurate. In reality, the consultant said he would not answer the question for confidentiality reasons. Some of the people he spoke with requested anonymity because they want to KEEP THEIR JOBS.

    If Butch had something worthwhile to add to that 5-minute (so he says) phone call, he should have said it. He did not, and that was his choice - a bad one.

  14. What is a "state mandated" retirement? He had retired from his position as a fire captain. Many retirees take on part time work after they retire, and he did the same, in an entirely different role, and as a CIVILIAN, not as anything related to the position he retired from. Naming what department heads the consultant had spoken to was not a beach of confidentiality, it was expected he would talk to department heads as part of his consultation. As far as regular employees are concerned, that is different.

    I won't second guess what Butch said during his 5 minute call, that was between him and the consultant. No one can say whether it was worthwhile, or not, unless they were there. The point you are missing, is the report was completed at that time, and the call to Butch came because he had not, for whatever reason, bothered to talk to the Chiefs assistant, and had to at this point.

    Keep you anonymity, it is fine, you are right, I do not ask for names, except once in a while, but when one is so passionate, and so focused on a particular subject, I would think one would want to "own" those words and feelings.

    We have different opinions. I'm not going to beat you up at the bike rack after school.

  15. Not only wouldn't Mr. Horne say WHO he had spoken too, he wouldn't even say HOW MANY people he had spoken to.

    It seems, on the most part, that whenever someone hires a consultant around here, with our tax money, the consultant suggests what the person(s) who hired the consultant wanted to hear.

  16. I have no stake in this situation. I am a member of the fire service from a neighboring community and I've followed this story with great interest. My point of view is easily discounted by some because I'm not part of the community. So be it. Conversely, my point of view may have some value because I'm not emotionally attached to any of the key players. Thus, I'm able to stick to the facts. By all accounts, Chief Senecal and Vernon Jackson are great guys with a long, noble history of serving the town. For that, they deserve a level of respect and appreciation. That does not mean that they are capable of managing a fire department in the 21st century. The facts presented in the consultant's report prove otherwise. I believe the issues presented were validated by the fact that the department took immediate action to correct the noted deficiencies...once the report was released. If the report was bogus, then NO action would have been required. The fact that corrective actions are being taken does not in any way vindicate the chief or his command staff. The situation should never have gotten that bad. My reaction after reading the consultant's report was, "Oh My God!" From a fire service was that bad. Many of the facts are simply indefenseable. In closing, I would expect you to speak out positively about your friend, Butch Jackson. He's fortunate to have a friend like you. The Town of Sturbridge will be fortunate to find new leadership to restore the reputation of the Fire Department.


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