PLEASANT POINT, Maine — Fire Chief Maxwell “Chick” Barnes, 70, wondered Thursday whether his age and disability contributed to the reasons he was laid off Tuesday after 35 years as a firefighter.
He wears a prosthesis because part of his right leg was amputated two years ago from complications of diabetes. He returned to work in November 2008.
Barnes said he was told around 2:30 p.m. Tuesday by Public Safety Director Ralph Dana that he was being laid off for “the safety of the reservation.” Barnes said he suspected that meant tribal leaders didn’t like his senior status or his prosthesis.
Tribal officials said Thursday that Barnes was let go because of dire financial problems on the reservation, not for health reasons. “I am sure that Chick is disappointed, obviously, with having been released, but I am confident he was not released for those purposes. That would be a violation of law and policy,” Councilor Fred “Moose” Moore said.
More than 20 people have been laid off since December and the tribe’s dispatch service was shut down last year. Fire Department finance problems also were cited in the letter Barnes received confirming his layoff.
“Based on my assessment of the proposed BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] fire budget for FY 2009, there are insufficient monies available to continue funding a fire chief position,” Dana wrote in the letter. “The recent loss of tribal dollars and the added burden of maintaining the public safety building are some factors that have contributed to this situation.”
In the letter, Dana said firefighters had not received their stipends last year and stipends were not included in this year’s budget. Volunteers used to be paid $7,500 to fight fires and attend training.
Dana declined Thursday to elaborate on Barnes’ layoff. “It is a personnel issue and I think it would be irresponsible and unprofessional for me to turn that into a media event,” he said.
Barnes said morale was at an all-time low on the reservation, indicating people were fearful of losing their jobs.
Councilor Eddie Bassett agreed tribal members were troubled. “Of course things are pretty low; this is a very difficult thing for all of us,” he said of the tribe’s finances. “None of this is easy for anyone.”
Barnes said he believed part of the problem was that decisions about the tribe’s finances and future were being made in offices and away from the public and not at tribal council meetings.
But Moore denied that allegation. He said there was more transparency now in tribal government than ever before. He conceded that agendas have been long and sometimes meetings have been delayed until the next day, but not because anyone was attempting to hide anything.
Barnes said he fully expected that Moore and Bassett would have a different take on what was happening on the reservation. “I don’t care what they say; I am telling the truth, they’re not,” he said.