Discord spurs Orford Fire Department departures

Orford Fire Chief Terry Straight, right, and Tim Cole voice their differing opinions about the Orford town budget during Town Meeting in Orford, N.H., on March 10, 2015. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Orford Fire Chief Terry Straight, right, and Tim Cole voice their differing opinions about the Orford town budget during Town Meeting in Orford, N.H., on March 10, 2015. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News file photo — Sarah Priestap

By CHRISTINA DOLAN

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 01-26-2024 5:19 AM

Modified: 01-29-2024 9:21 AM


ORFORD — Unexpected competition for the role of fire chief last March has divided some residents into opposing factions, reduced the ranks of the Fire Department and left the town of 1,200 without a Planning Board.

Orford’s voters in 2014 authorized the Selectboard to appoint the town’s fire chief and, since then, Terry Straight has been tapped for the role each year with no opposition.

Until last March, when Orford resident and retired Lebanon firefighter Kevin Follensbee, who has since joined the Selectboard, expressed interest in the fire chief position.

The Selectboard scrambled to create a process for deciding between two candidates, opting to conduct interviews in closed sessions. The board then appointed Straight to his 10th year as chief on March 22 by a 2-1 vote, with board member Chase Kling voting no. Until recently, Straight also was chairman of the Orford Planning Board, of which he had been a member since 2019.

Since his latest appointment as fire chief, acrimony between Straight’s allies and Follensbee’s supporters has surfaced in public meetings and spread to social media and Listservs.

“What’s disturbing to me is the negativity and divisiveness over some of these issues in a small community,” Orford resident Tom Thompson said. “Not to say that we all agree with each other, but in a small community, you help your neighbor.”

Within two weeks in November and December, four members of the seven-person Planning Board, including Straight, resigned, leaving it unable to form a quorum.

Then at the Jan.16 Selectboard meeting, Straight submitted a letter of resignation as fire chief, a role for which he was paid by the town on a per-call basis and received a “stipend for administrative work,” Selectboard Chairman John Adams said Straight was paid a total of $12,096 in 2023, including a $5,000 stipend.

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Straight’s resignation letter mentioned a “conflict of personalities between myself and a couple members of the Orford Selectboard,” which amounted to “personal attacks on my character.”

His departure was immediately followed by 14 other firefighters, leaving the department with just four active members.

“It has been a constant battle this past year with the current Selectboard members, and enough is enough,” firefighter Zach Ferro’s resignation letter said.

Conflict and poor communication don’t serve the town, firefighter Timothy Hebb’s letter said: “It is clear to me the active members of the Fire Department and the selectmen are not going to come to agreement on matters involving the Fire Department.”

At its Jan. 16 meeting, the Orford Selectboard appointed Kevin Follensbee as interim fire chief. Follensbee was present for the discussion but abstained from voting. He will serve until Town Meeting, when a new chief will be appointed.

Follensbee was appointed to the three-member Selectboard in May, after Jennifer Carter resigned from the board. He said in an interview that he plans to run for the remaining two years of her term at Town Meeting.

Since the resignations, the Orford Fire Department (OFD) has increased its membership to nine firefighters available to respond to emergencies, Follensbee said Saturday. He has made arrangements with Lyme and Wentworth, N.H., to provide support to Orford as it rebuilds its roster. A major event such as a structure fire will trigger mutual aid from surrounding towns.

“We’ll get through this. As people come forward, the department will grow again as it has in the past,” Follensbee said.

Townspeople hope that the change will bring an end to recent contentiousness.

“It can’t go back to the way it was,” said Orford resident Ruth Hook. “The Selectboard was always going after the chief, and the chief was always getting his back up.”

She filed two complaints against Straight in the past year, one for blocking her on the department’s Facebook page and another for calling the state fire warden when she accidentally started a brush fire by launching a bottle rocket at a squirrel raiding her bird feeder.

In early April, Follensbee’s wife Janice, who also is a firefighter, submitted a complaint to the Selectboard that she had been blocked from the Orford Fire Department’s Facebook page and that this violated her First Amendment rights. She later made a complaint against the Selectboard for not responding promptly to her initial complaint.

Straight said on Tuesday that Janice Follensbee’s Facebook comments had been “a little negative” and he decided to block her to prevent conflict. He declined to repeat the specific comment that resulted in the decision to block her. Orford did not have a social media policy at the time, and Straight said that he considered the Fire Department’s account to be personal.

Tensions escalated in mid-December, when an unsigned pamphlet was sent to every Orford postal box claiming to be from a majority of active members of the Orford Fire Department. “Do you know there have been complaints against our Fire Chief that originate from a small group of people?” the pamphlet read. The pamphlet claimed that those complaints had not been fully investigated by the Selectboard and that “without a fair investigation, our Fire Chief may be improperly disciplined for mere allegations.”

By late December, the acrimony between some of Orford’s residents had spilled onto the town Listserv in language so hostile that it violated Google’s content policy and the entire Listserv was shut down.

The Selectboard asked Straight to attend meetings to address the complaints against him and discuss the origin of the pamphlet. When he did not attend the Dec. 27 meeting, he was given an ultimatum by the board and then suspended for “failure to come to meetings in the fall to resolve some of the issues causing tension,” said Adams, the board’s chairman.

Straight said in an interview that he had missed the meeting due to a planned absence that Adams was aware of. “I got written up even though I was on vacation,” he said. His suspension was partially lifted in January so he could present year-end reports and budget materials to the board.

Meanwhile, the Orford Planning Board last met in November and may not be able to convene again until after Town Meeting.

None of the four departing board members gave reasons for their resignations. They were due to “changes in people’s personal lives,” Adams said in December.

But Straight said at the time that “there is one Selectboard member that’s constantly bad-mouthing the Planning Board, and we all just had enough of it.” He declined to name the Selectboard member.

Because planning board members are elected officials, appointments must be approved by the Grafton County Superior Court in North Haverhill. Adams has petitioned the court to appoint three volunteers who have come forward to serve until Town Meeting on March 12.

The hearing is scheduled for Feb. 7.

While there is no pressing business being delayed by the hearing, Adams said, “it’s not the best.”

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