The debate about Wiscasset firefighters washing their personal vehicles at the fire station will be decided by voters in November. The Wiscasset Board of Selectmen voted 4-1 Tuesday, Sept. 20 to call a townwide vote for Nov. 8 to let residents decide a question that has divided the fire department, the board of selectmen, and the town administration.
The warrant article will ask voters, “shall the town vote to continue to allow the members of the Wiscasset Fire Department the use of the Wiscasset Fire Station to clean their personal vehicles?” It will go before voters as the result of a petition circulated by members of the department.
The petition was on Town Clerk Linda Perry’s chair when she arrived at work Thursday, Sept. 15, she said. In order to be placed on the ballot, a petition needs signatures of 10 percent of the voters in the last gubernatorial election, or 179 signatures, Perry said.
The petition fell two signatures short, Perry said. The department was informed and collected additional signatures for the petition, according to Town Manager Marian Anderson. The Maine Municipal Association was contacted for legal advice to determine if the petition was valid.
The association advised that putting the petition question before the town for a vote was at the discretion of the board of selectmen, Anderson said. A town vote would have to be taken at the next town meeting, or a special town meeting would need to be called, according to a memo from the Maine Municipal Association.
Selectman Jeff Slack made the motion to place a warrant article on a local ballot to coincide with the Nov. 8 general election. “I want to get this done,” Slack said.
The motion passed 4-1 with Selectman David Cherry opposed. Cherry questioned whether the petition process was the correct process to use to resolve the question of firefighters washing vehicles at the station. “Is this a personnel issue?” Cherry said. “Can you settle a personnel issue by petition?”
The ballots will need to be hand-counted Nov. 8, because it is too late to prepare a local ballot that can be counted electronically, Anderson said.
The debate about firefighters washing their personal vehicles at the station has caused a public rift between the department, the board of selectmen, and the town administration. Firefighters have said the practice is a long-standing tradition of the department.
Town officials, however, have said the practice violates a town policy regarding the personal use of town equipment. Since the fire department was informed the practice needed to be discontinued in April, the Wiscasset Board of Selectmen has voted at least four times on amending town policy to allow the practice to continue.
Each time, the motion was defeated 3-2. Selectmen voting in opposition cited liability concerns as the main reason for not amending town policy to allow the practice to continue.
Selectmen looked into creating a waiver to release the town from liability if a firefighter is injured while washing his or her personal vehicle at the station, but were not satisfied the waiver would release the town from liability. After a meeting with the fire department in August, selectmen suggested that the department rewrite one of its policies to release the town from liability.
When the department’s policy was presented, some selectmen were not satisfied that the revision would protect the town from a liability claim.
Throughout the process, board Chair Judy Colby expressed hope that the conflict could be resolved without going to a town vote.