In Searsport: Dittmeier out, Webster in

Board accepts fire chief's resignation, effective immediately
By Tanya Mitchell | Jun 10, 2012
Photo by: File image Jim Dittmeier speaks at a memorial ceremony at the Searsport Public Safety Building Sept. 11, 2011.

Searsport — In what Searsport Town Manager James Gillway described as a lengthy meeting Tuesday night, June 5, the Board of Selectmen decided to put an end to the fire chief's employment with the town sooner than later.

Following an executive session to discuss the resignation of Jim Dittmeier from the fire chief's post, as well as other fire department matters, Gillway said selectmen voted 3-0-1 to "thank him for his service and to accept the fire chief's resignation, effective immediately."

After selectmen took the vote to formally accept Dittmeier's resignation, Gillway said the board also approved a motion to give the town manager authorization to appoint longtime Searsport firefighter Andy Webster to the post of interim fire chief.

Gillway said he expects the transition won't be without its challenges, but he knows Webster will be the right man for the job.

"When I started here, [Webster] was still working at his dad's garage, and he was still in high school," said Gillway. "He's been with us for a number of years and he's fully trained."

Gillway said Dittmeier, who submitted his resignation letter May 16 citing personal reasons for his departure, left some details a bit vague in regard to when his resignation would be effective.

Part of the issue was that the town is still operating under a policy that dates back to the 1980s, which leaves the power of appointing a new fire chief solely to the town manager. Gillway said selectmen have set up a workshop date to rework the policy so it gives selectmen the power to appoint a chief as well as the town manager.

At the time Dittmeier submitted his resignation, Gillway said, he agreed to remain on board until the town could work out the policy issue and appoint a new chief. Wednesday afternoon, Gillway said Dittmeier had expressed his desire to stay on to show the new chief the ropes and to complete a few ongoing projects, with his planned departure date being Sept. 30, but Gillway said, Dittmeier left the final decision up to the board.

"He kind of left it up in the air for the board to pick a date," said Gillway. "I think we felt at this point, and not to his discredit, that it was more important to take this employee out of the limelight and it was better that it happen now."

Gillway said overall, Dittmeier had served the department very well since he came on board.

"Jim [Dittmeier] is leaving us with a far better fire department that what we had when he first came," said Gillway. "They're a highly trained, qualified and tight unit, and we are proud of them."

Dittmeier, who began serving as interim chief following the resignation of former Fire Chief Terry Cook Jr. in Oct. 2007, accepted the official role in Nov. 2007. He was named Emergency Management Agency Director of the year in 2010, and Gillway said he has attracted new volunteer firefighters and unified the downtown and North Searsport fire departments during his time with the town.

Dittmeier's tenure has had its ups and downs in recent months, as the fire chief drew criticism from the public after authoring a controversial post on the Searsport Fire Department's Facebook page. In that Nov. 16, 2011, post, Dittmeier offered his personal thoughts about the ongoing debate surrounding the development proposal from Colorado-based DCP Midstream to construct a 22.7-million-gallon Liquid Petroleum Gas tank at Mack Point.

The post, which no longer appears on the Fire Department's Facebook page, encouraged the "silent majority" of people in town who support the potential development to share their views with town selectmen. He further stated that the development could bring jobs for young people and provide more tax dollars for the town, according to previously published reports.

At that time, Dittmeier described local opponents of the development as "a few people that just want the town to stay this way and die." Dittmeier suggested, "maybe we should have a sign that says 'Searsport, Town of Complainers who are against everything,'" reports at the time quoted.

Dittmeier also submitted a letter to the editor that ran in the Dec. 1, 2011, issue of the VillageSoup Journal, in which he reiterated his position. In that letter, Dittmeier said he was expressing his opinion as a taxpayer and not as the town's fire chief.

Dittmeier's Facebook post was in part what triggered the Board of Selectmen to consider adding an amendment to the town's existing computer use and email policy pertaining specifically to town employees' use of social media. The board approved the amended policy at its May 1, 2012, meeting following several weeks of discussion, including a selectmen's workshop aimed at discussing the details of the policy change. Following the May 1 meeting, Gillway said, selectmen made two additions to the draft policy, one "reminding employees that they represent the town" and the second "re-emphasizing that their use of social media is being monitored."

In recent weeks, Dittmeier has routinely opted out of returning phone calls and electronic messages from The Republican Journal seeking his comments.

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