Amherst City Council Supports Retention of Fire Chief Walter “Tim” Nelson After Age 65

AMHERST – City officials will appeal to the state legislature to allow Fire Chief Walter “Tim” Nelson to continue in office beyond his 65th birthday in April, when he turns the age of. compulsory state retirement.

At the request of City Manager Paul Bockelman, City Council agreed last week to seek the necessary special legislation that would be tabled by State Representative Mindy Domb, D-Amherst, and State Senator Jo Comerford, D-Northampton.

The council vote for the measure was 9 to 2, a vote that came after the president of Amherst Fire Department Local 1764 raised objections, both orally and in writing. District 5 Councilor Darcy DuMont and District 1 Councilor Sarah Swartz both voted against the request, and District 3 Councilor Dorothy Pam and District 1 Councilor Cathy Schoen both abstained on the vote.

In his note, Bockelman wrote that he wanted Nelson to stay. A resident of South Hadley, Nelson was hired in early 2010 after serving in the Holyoke Fire Department for 29 years, eight of which were as that town’s Deputy Fire Chief.

“I want Tim Nelson to continue being the city’s fire chief beyond his 65th birthday which comes in April,” Bockelman wrote. “And Tim would love to continue in that role after his 65th birthday.”

Bockelman told advisers the situation was nothing unusual. “It’s a pretty common practice,” he says.

Ben Graham, president of Amherst Fire Department Local 1764, however, asked councilors to vote against or table the motion, saying the union opposes extending Nelson’s leadership from 17 months to five years. , and that instead, Amherst should pursue the hiring of a new firefighter. chief.

The union has long-standing complaints about staffing levels, arguing that the city’s 46 full-time budget employees are insufficient to cover Amherst and provide ongoing medical services to Pelham, Leverett and Shutesbury, as well as the ‘University of Massachusetts, Amherst College. and the campuses of Hampshire College.

Bockelman said the city was heading towards arbitration with the firefighters union after mediation failed. The contract with the union expired on June 30 and these city employees continue to work under the terms of the previous contract.

Nelson said last week he would not deal with any of the union’s complaints, instead letting his record speak for itself. “My job is to stay focused on the department’s mission and keep people safe,” Nelson said. “It’s my job.”

Nelson added that he was honored to have been invited to stay, consult with his deputy chiefs and speak to his family before accepting Bockelman’s request.

“The city believes I have something to offer at this critical time. I want to be a part of something bigger than myself, ”said Nelson.

Bockelman, as the person responsible for hiring department heads, said he had no interest in replacing Nelson and praised him for advocating for strengthening the fire department and strengthening the ranks with four new positions initially funded by the CARES Act, which will continue indefinitely with funding from the American Rescue Plan Act.

He also cited Nelson’s work in acquiring a $ 350,000 ambulance and the critical role he plays in the development and eventual start-up of the Community Responders for Equity, Safety and Service agency, which will join police and firefighters as one of the three public security departments.

Bockelman said Nelson is a leader for department heads and helps keep the leadership team together, and has served as a role model for other African Americans in city government,

“Tim is a leader in attracting people to work here,” said Bockelman, noting that Rey Harp would head the Amherst recreation department.

Graham’s letter to individual advisers highlighted additional concerns about Nelson’s leadership, citing reduced morale among employees and a toxic work environment that prompted some to leave. The letter notes that Nelson’s age may also matter.

“The increased risk for firefighters of occupational diseases such as heart disease and cancer is one of the fundamental reasons the mandatory retirement age was set at 65,” Graham wrote.

The letter raised red flags for Pam, who said she was troubled by its contents, and DuMont also expressed concern about what she read. District 4 councilor Steve Schreiber, however, asked council to defer to Bockelman on the matter.

Board chair Lynn Griesemer said she had never had any interactions with Nelson that would make her think, explaining that she had worked closely with him as a member of a student how-to committee. construct a new fire station and a new facility for the Ministry of Public Works.

Scott Merzbach can be contacted at [email protected]

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