Community members urge Canaan Selectboard to reinstate fire chief 

By CHRISTINA DOLAN

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 02-02-2024 10:00 PM

Modified: 02-03-2024 6:26 AM


CANAAN — Following the sudden departure of the town’s fire chief last month, the Selectboard faces a gap in emergency services leadership and pushback from some residents who think the board should have refused to accept the chief’s resignation.

A longtime Canaan resident, John Hennessy also served as the town’s building inspector, emergency management director and Canaan Ambulance’s chief of service. He has stepped away from all of those positions.

Hennessy did not offer a reason for his resignation. His letter to the Selectboard simply said that his last day of town employment would be Jan. 12.

A Jan. 10 email from the Selectboard to Canaan’s 4,000 residents said: “There was not, nor to our knowledge has there ever been, a disagreement between John and the Selectboard.”

When Hennessy verbally resigned on De. 28, “he was strongly advised by the board to wait at least 24 hours to clearly think about his decision.” He chose not to wait and instead delivered a written resignation that same day, the email said.

At a Jan.16 Selectboard meeting, resident Dave McAlister presented the board with a petition signed by 230 people asking the board to reject Hennessy’s resignation and re-appoint him to his town roles. While he did resign, “within 24 hours he rescinded that resignation,” the petition said.

Canaan resident Bob Barrett, according to a recorded version of the Jan. 16 meeting, said that “it’s no secret that he did put in a resignation” but pointed out that everyone has done things they regret. He asked the board to reconsider, because “everyone deserves a second chance.”

Hennessy couldn’t be reached for comment last week.

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The board’s email came amid speculation on social media about a possible conflict between Hennessy and the Selectboard over the handling of a Canaan Ambulance employee who allegedly ran a personal errand after her shift on Dec. 18. Apparently the ambulance became stuck in mud, which required calling a tow truck.

The $450 towing bill sent to the town shows Hennessy’s signature dated Dec. 21 accompanied by a note saying “OK to pay.” Both Selectboard Chairman Stephen Freese and interim Town Administrator Jack Wozmak said that there was no dispute over the bill and that it went through the normal payment process. The ambulance employee offered to compensate the town for the towing expense, but that offer was declined by the Selectboard, Freese said.

A member of the Fire Department since 1983, Hennessy replaced Fire Chief Bill Bellion in March 2022, becoming the town’s first full-time fire and emergency medical services chief.

Canaan’s 2022 Town Report indicates a budgeted 2023 salary of about $60,000 for Hennessy’s four positions combined.

Canaan Ambulance serves Canaan, Orange and Dorchester and has three ambulances and two full-time employees who work weekdays.

Nineteen additional medical responders work on a “paid-on-call” basis, meaning that they are compensated only when responding to an emergency.

Despite uncertainty about Hennessy’s reasons for leaving, more than 200 Canaan residents would like to see him back on the job.

In its Jan. 10 email, the Selectboard said that this was “the third time in less than a year that (Hennessy) has resigned from his position with the town. Each of the previous times, the Board mutually agreed to rescind his resignation.”

Asked whether Hennessy attempted to rescind this most recent resignation, both Freese and Wozmak this week declined to address the question, saying it was a personnel matter.

The Selectboard scheduled a Jan. 25 meeting with Hennessy, who didn’t appear for the meeting and hasn’t contacted the Selectboard since then, Freese said on Tuesday.

Hennessy’s departure will have no impact on the town’s ability to provide emergency services, Freese said. For now, Rick Colburn, who was Hennessy’s second-in-command, is serving as interim fire chief. Except for the chief, all of Canaan’s 17 firefighters work on a paid-on-call basis.

While three of Hennessy’s municipal roles were straightforward appointments, the Fire Department normally recommends a candidate for chief to the Selectboard, which may then approve or deny the recommendation.

Asked what would happen if the Fire Department recommended John Hennessy for chief, Freese said that the board would “cross that bridge when we come to it.”

Christina Dolan can be reached at cdolan@vnews.com or 603-727-3208.