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Laconia councilor takes heat for reference to dead firefighter while confronting union boss about undermining ambulance deal

Union Leader Correspondent

July 12. 2018 1:35PM

LACONIA — City Councilor Bob Hamel is facing criticism for his remarks at a Monday night meeting during a prickly exchange with the head of the union that represents city firefighters.

It is the height of budget season in Laconia, which has a tax cap in place, and the council and fire department have clashed in recent weeks over the cost of overtime for firefighters.

The council had initially considered cutting up to $300,000 from the fire department’s $4.4 million budget but voted Monday to trim $150,000 instead. That money will be used to hire a school resource officer for the middle school and pay for park irrigation.

Fire Chief Ken Erickson had said a $300,000 cut would jeopardize the department’s ability to protect the city’s 16,500 residents.

Adding to the angst was the council’s decision to explore privatization of the ambulance service.

Lakes Region General Hospital had been providing about a $1 million annually to support ambulance operations run by the fire department but was only able to recover about $800,000 through billing insurers or users directly, prompting the dissolution of the agreement and the city issuing a request for proposals for a private ambulance company.

Brewster Ambulance Service of Weymouth, Mass., met the terms of the request for proposals but asked to be withdrawn from consideration before its terms were made public. In a letter explaining his decision, company president and chief executive officer Mark Brewster said he relies on firefighters to operate his ambulances in multiple communities and did not want to compete against them.

During Monday’s city council meeting, Hamel told Jason Griffin, president of Laconia Professional Firefighters Union Local 1153, that Brewster pulled out “because the union up here called the union down there and the fire department down there threatened to quit his organization if Brewster came up here and provided service.”

“If you have proof of that I would like to see it and see who it was, because it was not me,” Griffin replied.

Hamel responded, “OK,” and then continued to take aim at the department’s leadership.

“You guys really need to calm down, you really do,” Hamel said. “You’re out of control over there and that comes from the top down, from a chief who says he does not answer to the council. It’s a Massachusetts attitude and it needs to stop. We need to work together.

“It was your union, and I know you guys think you can walk on water,” Hamel continued. “There was a man in this town a long time ago who said he could walk on water and he tried it up at the Weirs dock and he didn’t. I know what you guys go through I was a policeman for 10 years and I’ve seen what you’ve seen.”

In a video of the exchange posted on the union’s Facebook page, someone in the audience, out of camera view, can then be heard asking, “Who are you referring to who could walk on water?”

Mayor Ed Engler then raises his hand palm forward in a stop-like gesture and says, “Let’s control ourselves here.”

“If you want to have an open conversation and work together, that’s out of line and that needs to stop,” Griffin told Hamel.

Erickson, the fire chief, then walked up behind Griffin, who was speaking to the council from behind a podium, grasped Griffin’s left arm and tried to lead him away while saying, “Drop it and go home.”

Griffin pulled his arm away from Erickson and started to follow the chief before turning and saying, “A dead fireman. That’s how you’re going to talk to me?”

Kelsey Sewell was among those who took to Facebook to denounce Hamel’s comments. Sewell’s stepfather, Laconia Fire Lt. Mark Miller, drowned while ice diving near the docks in Weirs Beach on March 11, 2004.

Miller, 43, a member of the department for 17 years, and fellow department diver JP Hobby were testing new dry suits, just off Mount Washington Cruises’ main dock, when Miller failed to surface.

After a massive search, Miller’s body was recovered the following day. The two divers were not tethered, as they had not planned to go beneath the ice.

“To hear Councilman Hamel mock the death of my father who protected this city for as long as he did is truly disgusting,” Sewell wrote.

She urged people to share the post suggesting it might be time to find a new councilor to represent Ward 5 as Hamel “is clearly not able to express his opinions in a mature and professional manner.”

Meanwhile, Hamel has said his reference wasn’t to Lt. Miller but rather Calvin “Red” Dunn, who once served on the council, ran for governor and was known for his eccentric behavior, including wearing a tin miner’s style hard hat, even indoors.

“Our union’s intent at the July 9th meeting was to express a sincere interest in working to mend a longtime broken relationship,” Griffin wrote on Local 1153’s Facebook page, which features a photo of Lt. Miller in his turnout gear holding a kitten rescued from a house fire.

“Again, trying to take the high road as we attempted to have open conservations and here is what transpired,” Griffin wrote above the link to the video of his exchange with Hamel.

Politics Public Safety Laconia

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