Freeport finds no conflict of interest, but suspends fire chief for 2 days

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FREEPORT — Fire Chief Darrel Fournier was suspended for two days last week after town officials determined his second job could have created “the appearance of a conflict of interest.”

Fournier received an unpaid, two-day suspension Jan. 15 and Jan. 16 from Town Manager Peter Joseph. Fournier on Jan. 19 took a scheduled medical leave for shoulder surgery and will be out for six to 12 weeks, according to the Fire Department.

In addition to being fire chief, Fournier worked part time at Paul Davis Restoration, a water, fire, and mold clean-up and restoration business in Portland. The company also assists property owners with insurance claims.

Freeport’s personnel code says full-time town employees may not hold another full-time job, unless the town manager or the employee’s department head is notified. The code doesn’t mention part-time second jobs.

“After looking into the matter and obtaining advice from the Town’s Attorney, we believe that there was no direct financial conflict of interest,” Joseph said in a prepared statement. “However, Chief Fournier’s promotion of an outside company could have created the appearance of a conflict of interest to the general public.”

Questions about a potential conflict of interest were raised after Fournier suggested hiring Davis to the Freeport Housing Trust, owner of a Unity Lane duplex damaged by fire on Dec. 20, 2014.

Fournier on Jan. 6 said he doesn’t believe there was a conflict in his recommendation, but he understands that other people may see it differently.

He resigned from Paul Davis at the beginning of January, he said, because he “was going to resign anyway” after having surgery. He said he decided to leave early, instead of waiting, because of the questions raised about the Paul Davis job.

Joseph said Fournier’s decision to resign from Davis resolved the issue.

“(The two day suspension), combined with his voluntary resignation of the outside employment, leads me to believe that Chief Fournier has taken adequate steps to address the situation and to ensure that this will not be an issue moving forward,” Joseph said in his statement.

The Maine Fire Chiefs’ Association is examining if Fournier violated its code of ethics by being employed by the restoration company. Brunswick Fire Chief Kenneth Brillant, the president of the association, said the evaluation is on hold until Fournier returns from medical leave.

“He is out with an injury and procedure takes that into account,” Brillant said Tuesday.

Brillant said when Fournier returns, members of the fire chiefs’ association will “sit down and examine the facts” to determine if he violated the code of ethics.

“(The code of ethics) talks about using your position (as fire chief) to benefit financial gain,” Brillant said. “We’re trying to determine if that’s what happened.”

Mark Higgins, who owns the Paul Davis franchise in Portland, said Jan. 6 that Fournier’s role with the company was to make people aware of its services after their homes or businesses suffered damage. Higgins said this is typical in the restoration business and that many fire chiefs work with restoration companies.

Brillant said he wasn’t sure if Higgin’s information is accurate, although he hasn’t heard of many fire chiefs who work with restoration firms.

“I don’t think there are a lot of restoration companies in Maine, but maybe it’s something that happens nationally,” he said.

No one from the International Association of Fire Chiefs was available for comment. Its online code of ethics the association says firefighters can “serve their communities in multiple capacities” and that it believes that “individuals should have the right to engage in secondary employment.”

But the code of ethics for fire chiefs has some exceptions, too.

It says chiefs must “avoid situations whereby our decisions or influence may have an impact on personal financial interests,” and that they must “engage in no outside employment or professional activities that may impair or appear to impair our primary responsibilities as fire officials.”

Fournier has worked in fire service since 1974 and has been Freeport’s chief for a total of more than 20 years, once in the 1980s and again since the late 1990s. Deputy Chiefs Paul Conley and Eric Sylvain are replacing him while he is on leave.

Kate Gardner can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or kgardner@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @katevgardner.

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I'm a reporter for The Forecaster covering Freeport, Yarmouth, Chebeague Island, and Cape Elizabeth. I'm from a small town in NH no one's ever heard of. When not reporting, I can be found eating pasta and reading books, often at the same time.