Amherst Town Council backs keeping Fire Chief Walter “Tim” Nelson on duty after age 65

  • Amherst Fire Chief Walter “Tim” Nelson was hired in 2010. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Monday, January 03, 2022

AMHERST — An appeal will be made by town officials to the state Legislature to allow Fire Chief Walter “Tim” Nelson to continue his tenure beyond his 65th birthday in April, when he will reach the state’s mandatory retirement age.

At the request of Town Manager Paul Bockelman, the Town Council agreed last week to seek the necessary special legislation that would be filed by state Rep. Mindy Domb, D-Amherst, and state Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton.

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

In his memo, Bockelman wrote that he wants Nelson to stay on. A South Hadley resident, Nelson was hired in early 2010 after serving in the Holyoke Fire Department for 29 years, eight as that city’s deputy fire chief.

“I want to have Tim Nelson continue as the town’s fire chief beyond his 65th birthday which occurs in April,” Bockelman wrote. “And Tim would like to continue in this role after his 65th birthday.”

Bockelman told councilors there was nothing unusual about the situation. “It’s a fairly common practice,” he said.

Ben Graham, president of the Amherst Firefighters Local 1764, though, asked councilors to vote against or table the motion, saying that the union objects to extending Nelson’s leadership anywhere from 17 months to five years, and that instead Amherst should pursue hiring a new fire chief.

The union has long-standing complaints about staffing levels, arguing that the 46 full-time staff in the town budget is insufficient to cover Amherst and provide continued medical services for Pelham, Leverett and Shutesbury, as well as the University of Massachusetts, Amherst College and Hampshire College campuses.

Bockelman said the town is heading into arbitration with the firefighters union after mediation failed. The contract with the union expired June 30, and those town employees continue to work under the conditions in the previous contract.

Nelson said last week that he wouldn’t address any of the complaints from the union, instead letting his record speak for itself. “My job is to keep focused on the department’s mission and to keep folks safe,” Nelson said. “That’s my job.”

Nelson added that he is honored to have been asked to stay, consulting with his assistant chiefs and talking to his family before agreeing with Bockelman’s request.

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

Bockelman, as the person responsible for hiring department heads, said he has no interest in replacing Nelson, and praised him for being an advocate for strengthening the Fire Department and bolstering its ranks with four new positions initially funded through the CARES Act, that will continue indefinitely with American Rescue Plan Act funding.

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

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

“Tim is a leader in attracting people to work here,” Bockelman said, pointing to getting Rey Harp to lead the Amherst Recreation Department.

Graham’s letter to individual councilors outlined additional concerns over Nelson’s leadership, citing reduced morale among employees and a toxic work environment that has prompted some to leave. The letter notes that Nelson’s age may come into play, too.

“The increased risk to firefighters from occupational illness such as heart disease and cancer is one of the fundamental reasons the mandatory retirement age was set to sixty-five,” Graham wrote.

That letter raised red flags for Pam, who said she is troubled by its contents, and DuMont, too, expressed worry about what she read. District 4 Councilor Steve Schreiber, though, called on the council to defer to Bockelman on the matter.

Council President Lynn Griesemer said she has never had any interactions with Nelson that would give her pause, explaining that she worked closely with him as a member of a committee studying how to get a new fire station and Department of Public Works facility built.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.