An investigation into the Sumner Fire Department found it was “mismanaged and unprofessional,” with few spending guidelines, outdated inspections and incomplete training.
The husband and wife duo of Robert Stewart, former Sumner fire chief, and Kelly Stewart, former Sumner selectperson and fire safety officer, were arrested last week and accused of stealing up to $15,000 from the department, according to the Oxford County Sheriff’s Office.
The office found the couple purchased thousands of dollars of equipment that went unaccounted for or unused by the fire department, according to a press release.
A separate investigative report from an attorney contracted by the town concluded that “more likely than not,” Robert Stewart purchased equipment on the town account that was later listed for sale on the website of Foothills Firearms Safety LLC, a licensed firearms dealer where the Stewarts are listed as co-owners.
That investigative report, which was available to the public to read this week at the town hall, sharply criticized the management of the department.
Though the investigator could only confirm that sets of protective gloves were purchased with town funds and listed on the Foothills website, he wrote that “the complete lack of recordkeeping, the lack of any procedures regarding purchases, inventory and disbursements … prevent me from making any such conclusions with regard to the ultimate disposition of those many (non-fire) items.”
At an April 25 Select Board meeting, Robert Stewart said the purchase of batons and mace, which he said he gave department members, were meant “to protect fire department personnel,” the report states.
He also denied stealing or hiding equipment. As with all criminal charges, they are considered innocent unless proven guilty in court.
The report said Kelly Stewart “failed to bring to the attention of the Select Board what now seem to be obvious problems and Departmental inadequacies” during her 18 years in the department and 12 on the Select Board.
Kelly and Robert Stewart both resigned from the fire department around the time accusations of misconduct arose in late April, though it wasn’t until after the independent investigative report came out in July that Kelly resigned from the Select Board.
On Tuesday, dozens of Sumner residents gathered in the town garage to hear how the Select Board and volunteer fire department are dealing with the situation.
In addition to the alleged theft, fire department safety policies and operating procedures were outdated, equipment checks went undone and the department’s fire trucks were three years out from their last comprehensive inspection under the Stewarts’ supervision.
Robert Stewart has claimed that the department’s operation and equipment budget didn’t have enough money to complete the necessary tests, according to town meeting minutes.
In the couple’s joint resignation letter, they wrote, “The unfortunate part of this situation is that it could have been remedied with communication and teamwork and basic understanding of chain of command.”
Calls to Foothills Firearms Safety’s listed phone number were unanswered Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday morning.
Two former department members said they resigned due to safety concerns from these lapses and a lack of proper protective gear, wrote investigator Matt Tarasevich, an attorney with the Portland law firm Bernstein, Shur, Sawyer & Nelson.
The situation was so dire that after Stewart resigned and assistant chief Doug Fournier was appointed to the top job, Fournier took the department out of service until it was up to date with state requirements, town meeting minutes show.
It wasn’t until two weeks later, on May 9, that Fournier brought the department back in service after regaining state compliance.
At the Select Board meeting Tuesday, Fournier rattled off the additional tasks he and fire officials completed to further restore the department to good standing, including a voluntary audit by the state Bureau of Labor Standards and various equipment tests.
After the meeting, attendees rallied behind Fournier and the other volunteer members for the work they’ve done since the Stewarts’ departures.
“You guys have really done an amazing job,” said Selectman Don Munroe. “I think I speak for the whole town when we all say, thank you, seriously, to all you guys.”
“The firefighters who are here tonight and those who continued to serve the town of Sumner these past four months despite clear adversity deserve our respects and to be publicly commended for their actions,” said Sumner resident Kristen Chapman.
Both comments were followed by standing ovations for Fournier and other firefighters, who sat on the side of the garage, underneath their equipment cubbies.
Fournier said although the department is making headway, the fire trucks need more service and new tires, and the department plans to apply for a grant to purchase new gear for its members.
The town is also grappling with hefty legal fees from contracting Tarasevich, which adds another $50,000 to Sumner’s previously proposed $15,000 allocation, said Select Board Chair Marry Ann Haxton.
Some residents asked if the town was seeking restitution for the fees.
“As you’re aware, this is an ongoing investigation,” Haxton said. “The process has just begun and we do not know what the final options will be for us. If we have that option, we will likely” pursue it.
Some attendees said the Stewarts’ alleged misconduct has pulled residents together. They’re paying closer attention to town government and getting more involved, all while the fire department and remaining select board members are dealing with the fallout.
“(Fire officials) are making great strides from what I can tell tonight,” said resident Charlie Maddaus. “Hopefully we’ll be back to where we should be.”
Maddaus said he was concerned to learn about the conditions in the fire department outlined by the investigative report, saying his house recently had a chimney fire that required firefighters, causing him to wonder what could have gone wrong if equipment failed.
“They did a great job, but was there something missing to put us at risk? I don’t believe so,” Maddaus said. “Honestly, this is a stress test for the fire department. We’re finally having a lot of things addressed that hadn’t been.”