Westfield Fire Board Meets For First Time Since Suspensions

WESTFIELD – Westfield firefighters filled the available seats at the Board of Fire Commissioners’ February meeting – the first held since the hearings regarding the three Westfield Fire Department officers and firefighters suspended by the board.

While exact details of the charges made by the board against the former chief and treasurer of the volunteer fire department are still not known, it is clear that department members as a whole support the two, and feel that the board acted wrongly in removing them from office.

In January, closed hearings were held on the charges raised against the three suspended officers, and as a result Steve Pacanowski, former chief, was ousted from the fire department, while Jim Pacanowski, former treasurer, was relieved of his duties but was not asked to leave the department. The third suspended officer was exonerated.

Jack Bills, a 10-year veteran of the department, rose at the meeting to speak about the suspensions, although no time had been allotted for comments by the public. He was told by Barry Underwood, board chair, that he would be granted two minutes to speak, but spoke at much greater length and was applauded by the audience when he finished his remarks. He questioned the role and functions of the board, stating that he had carefully read the founding documents which describe the board’s mission as “to work for the betterment of the fire department.” Bills pointed out that in forcing the chief out of the fire department altogether, the department had lost 15 years of service, training and knowledge. He felt that the chief reported officially only to the mayor and to the Westfield Village Board, that the officially listed functions of the board of fire commissioners do not include close oversight of the fire department’s expenditures, and that any discipline to department members should only be done within specifically defined guidelines.

At the conclusion of the regular meeting, an executive session was held to discuss personnel matters. Nearly all of the audience remained in the building during the session and returned to the meeting at the conclusion of the session. As the meeting resumed, the board agreed to officially accept the findings of the hearings held earlier for the three suspended officers. Once again, no details were provided by the board.

In an interview with Marsha Holland, fire department secretary, and the third member to be suspended from her duties as an officer, Holland said that she had been accused of “failure to carry out the duties of the secretary.” According to Holland, the letter sent to her in December said that she had failed to carry out her duties because in two instances a paragraph had been duplicated in meeting minutes. The letter then listed 11 charges that pertained specifically to the treasurer of the department. Holland said that these charges had little to do with her position other than as secretary she would sign department vouchers after payment had been voted on by the entire fire department membership.

After the hearing on Jan. 8, she received a letter stating that her suspension as secretary was lifted and that she had not failed to carry out the duties of her office. Holland said that she was urged by many of her friends and co-workers to quit her position, but she decided to resume her duties. As she put it, “These are my guys. I take care of them.”

Of the board she said, “They have no idea what they did to me.” Holland says that she was personally deeply upset and embarrassed at the suggestion of wrongdoing on her part.