Supporters blast suspended fire chief critics


By David Avitabile

Supporters of suspended Middleburgh Fire Chief Brian Devlin backed the embattled leader Monday night with words of encouragement, vows to quit and threats against a village board member.
About 25 people attended Monday night's village board meeting, many of whom spoke against the village board's one-month suspension of Chief Devlin for his alleged role in a fight at the firehouse in October.
The Chief, who declined to meet with board members in executive session after the meeting, will meet with the board Monday to discuss his arrest in July on charges of speeding and driving while intoxicated.
Most of the speakers praised Chief Devlin's role in the response to the August 28 flood and also said the DWI was a personal matter.
Resident Debbie Effner said that years ago, firefighters could be seen drinking at local bars and then would stagger out and go on calls.
"You didn't do anything then," she said. "That's his personal life."
Trustee Matthew Avitabile said board members felt the Chief's conduct in the alleged fight was inappropriate conduct.
Chief Devlin's role after the flood was taken into account and that is why the suspension was a month and not longer.
The DWI arrest also must be acted upon since the Chief was driving a village-owned vehicle, Trustee Avitabile said.
Some speakers did not like the way the village board was acting like "the judge and jury" on the issue, noting that the DWI charge has not been settled in court.
"It's like a lynching," Ms. Effner said.
"If it was me, I'd resign," Trustee Avitabile said if he was in a similar circumstance.
Fire Department member Mike Devlin, Chief Devlin's brother, said no one came to the department to speak with members.
Trustee Avitabile said he spoke to Chief Devlin, fire department member John Shaw and another member as well as three attorneys on the issue.
"I spoke to both sides," he said.
Trustee Tom Gruning supported the board's action.
"Brian is the fire chief" and "should have the leadership skills to avoid a situation like that."
The fight occurred at the fire house after the Fall Festival parade on October 8.
Trustee Gerald Bowman, who voted against the suspension, asked if anyone else was drinking alcohol at the function.
Mr. Shaw said there was no beer in the firehouse, just on the blacktop in front and a nearby tent, but alcohol was involved.
He challenged board members to not respond if someone "throws a punch at you and throws a beer in your face" as has been alleged to have happened that day at the fire house.
Mr. Shaw said the same man, who was later arrested for stealing items from homes after the flood, once punched him in the face when he entered a local bar.
"Hopefully, Matt, he punches you in the face," Mr. Shaw said to Trustee Avitabile.
Trustee Avitabile said Mr. Shaw tried to blackmail him during the informal meeting about Chief Devlin.
Mr. Shaw, according to Trustee Avitabile, said "my reputation would be destroyed" if the issue was not covered up.
Trustee Avitabile asked those in attendance at that meeting to speak if that happened. There was no response from those who attended that meeting.
"Blackmail is unacceptable," Trustee Avitabile said.
Fire Department member Jerry Wayman said the actions by the village board are affecting the members of the department.
"Guys are dropping out," Mr. Wayman said. "The morale's gone. You may as well put a closed sign on the door."
Mike Devlin added, "Why don't we all resign and see what they do then."
Near the end of the discussion, Mr. Shaw tossed his keys on the meeting table and told board member to answer any calls that came in during the night. He then left the hall
He returned a few minutes later and picked up his keys.
Mayor Bill Ansel-McCabe, who voted against the suspension, said the department can take action against its members but the village board has to "police" the chief.
He also questioned why the story was in the Times-Journal after he made a request, before the suspension was finalized, to keep it out.
"The word 'may' included in a publication is not quite right," Mayor Ansel-McCabe said.