RUTLAND - An injured Rutland firefighter said he has no idea whether he'll continue to receive his full salary or whether selectmen, who met behind closed doors last night, would try to place him on workers' compensation and reduce his pay - something he contends is not legal.
Paul Newcomb of Hubbardston was to meet with the board last night, but the session didn't happen after selectmen declined to make the meeting public. Selectmen said they were meeting under an exemption in the state's Open Meeting Law that allows them to conduct strategy sessions in respect to collective bargaining. They said Firefighter Newcomb, who was to be the topic of the meeting, did not have the right to request that the session be open to the public.
Firefighter Newcomb's lawyer, Robert J. Hennigan Jr., told the board his client would not meet behind closed doors. He said selectmen were working on a memorandum of understanding with Firefighter Newcomb and that could not be construed as collective bargaining.
Daniel F. Hartwell, district vice president of the Professional Firefighters of Massachusetts, said the union also opposed holding the session in private because the meeting had nothing to do with collective bargaining or negotiations. Two weeks ago, he, Firefighter Newcomb, Fire Chief Thomas P. Ruchala and the board met in what he called a "productive" session.
At issue is whether the town can place Firefighter Newcomb on workers' compensation, rather than paying him his full salary of $50,821, under a state law that pertains to firefighters and police officers injured in the line of duty.
Selectmen apparently contend that Firefighter Newcomb's injury occurred when he was working on ambulance runs and not when he was fighting a fire, so he is not covered under the law.
But Rutland firefighters are required to be paramedics and working in the ambulance is considered a part of their job, Firefighter Newcomb has said. He has been out for more than a year and plans to retire, a process that will take about six months. He injured a disc in his back when he was lifting a patient into the ambulance. In August, doctors installed titanium rods in his back, removed the disc, and attached him to an electronic device to help stimulate the damaged nerves in his leg.
While both sides agreed to do research, Firefighter Newcomb, 43, in recent days received an offer from the town that he called unacceptable. The offer did not comply with the state law protecting firefighters and essentially offered him workers' compensation, he and others on his legal team said.
He said he was surprised by the offer and doesn't know when selectmen made the decision to send it to him. Switching to workers' compensation would reduce his pay by about 40 percent until he retires, he said.
Last night, selectmen met behind closed doors for an hour with representatives from the Massachusetts Interlocal Insurance Association, which they said was related to Firefighter Newcomb's case. Later, during the selectmen's regular meeting, about 60 firefighters from Rutland, Holden and as far away as Hanscom Field, Cambridge, Wilbraham, Sudbury and Andover packed the meeting hall, leaving only after Firefighter Newcomb was told by board Chairwoman Sheila Dibb that selectmen would not discuss the matter and that any meeting dates would be determined by the parties involved.
Some of the firefighters who attended said they were concerned that if the town succeeded in its interpretation of state law, they, too, could be subjected to reduced pay if they're injured in the line of duty when they are not fighting fires.