Emily Russo Miller
Record Staff Writer
(Dexter Mayor Dave White, as seen in a file photograph dated Feb. 26, 2011. Emily Russo Miller Photo)
Dexter town councilors in a meeting Tuesday voted to strip the mayor of his supervision duties of the Dexter Fire Department, further fueling the nearly year-old debate raging in the small town on for whom the volunteer department works.
Councilor Mitch Daubert moved for town councilors to supervise the fire department instead, until legal advice on the issue is sought on the issue from the town’s attorney, AJ Olsen.
The motion was unanimously approved by the four councilors, who were outright hostile to Dexter Mayor Dave White in the public meeting, eliciting snickers from some in the audience, and gasps of disbelief from others.
“I was a volunteer fireman for 15 years,” Councilor Andy Lopez said. “Ain’t no way this man here (pointing to the mayor) would have been my boss. I would have told him to go to hell.”
Another councilor later in the meeting, Norman Caffell, insinuated that the mayor’s resignation would be welcome.
“I can sign them all (checks) if you want to quit,” Caffell said.
White, who has been with odds with the councilors and Dexter Fire Chief Justin Powell since he took office last March, initially protested the motion, saying, “You can’t do that!” Daubert responded that during the previous week, he consulted with New Mexico Municipal League attorney Randy Van Vleck, and was advised the councilors could usurp the mayor’s responsibilities. Van Vleck could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.
“I did not expect them to do that at all,” White said in a follow-up interview Wednesday, noting that he does not want to pursue legal action at this time and that he hopes the issue resolves itself. “Their view is that they’re right that they can take supervising responsibilities from the mayor, which is specific in the statues, but they feel strongly that their position is right. I happen to disagree — the supervising responsibilities are with the mayor.”
Fire Chief Powell has long maintained that the fire department does not work for the mayor, especially since they are unpaid. Powell cited a Dexter town ordinance that states, “All activities of the Dexter Fire and Rescue will be coordinated by the Fire Chief, and reports of all activities will be given to the governing body in a timely fashion, at its regular council meetings.”
“The ordinance says that I have to answer to the governing body. That’s the four people right here,” Powell said after the meeting Tuesday, gesturing towards the four town councilors. “That’s what it says, that’s the end of story.”
Town councilors, most of whom are former firefighters, have supported Powell’s assertions, and Tuesday evening was no exception.
“Where does it say in this ordinance that (Powell) should report to the mayor?” Caffell asked.
Roswell attorney Barbara Patterson, an attorney for the city of Roswell, who attended the meeting at White’s request, explained to councilors that the ordinance simply means that the fire chief must report to the councilors on a regular basis to provide information, like if a building passed an inspection.
“That’s no different than reporting the amount of fines that may have been collected by the Municipal Court, or having your monthly bills reported to you by the people who provide that information,” she said.
She added that the New Mexico state constitution makes clear that the mayor is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the town, and for carrying out policies set forth by the legislative body, i.e. the town councilors. This includes, she said, supervising the town’s department heads, which includes the fire department, even though they are volunteers.
“(The Dexter Fire Department) is not a private business, like Walmart,” she said. “It is part of the town of Dexter.”
State fire marshal John Standefer, who was also invited to the meeting by the mayor, stated that volunteer firefighters are to be treated as employees, even though they are unpaid; in turn, the volunteers have the same rights as employees.
Still, councilors voted to seek legal advice on the matter, and to meet with Olsen — who is not on the town of Dexter’s payroll, but frequently advises councilors and the mayor on legal matters, and charges accordingly — on the town’s supervisory procedures and policies.
Powell has previously said in public meetings that he has sought legal counsel from Olsen on matters relating to the mayor, but Olsen declined to say in a phone interview Wednesday if he were currently representing Powell as an attorney or in any capacity, while also advising town councilors on the same issue.
“I don’t discuss who my private clients are,” Olson said, further declining to comment on whether he considered it to be a conflict of interest to be giving legal advice to both town councilors and Powell on the same issue simultaneously.
White noted on Wednesday that even in light of the tension emanating from Dexter’s town hall chambers, he would not step down from his position as mayor.
“As long as there’s hope that these things can be resolved, then I’m going to continue,” he said.