State Rep. Blais and Sen. Comerford to “remedy small towns” with bill

Comerford

Comerford FILE PHOTO

Blais

Blais FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

By LIESEL NYGARD

For the Athol Daily News

Published: 11-10-2023 5:00 PM

As a way to “remedy small towns,” state Rep. Natalie Blais and state Sen. Jo Comerford have filed a bill that would allow fire and police officials to work until age 72. 

Due to state law, emergency services personnel such as police officers and firefighters cannot work past the age of 65. However, through a special legislation known as the Home Rule Petition, these personnel can work until age 70. 

Blais said she and Comerford decided to file Bill H.2449 because of how frequently Home Loan Petitions are filed for individual towns within the 1st Franklin District, which Blais represents. According to the text of the bill, it will allow a member of a police or fire department to serve until the age of 72. This act shall not take effect until it has been adopted by a vote of the local legislative body, meaning a city or town. 

“With town approval [the bill] would make it so that towns are not having to do these individual Home Rule Petitions for individual members,” said Blais. “If we were to pass this legislation, not only would the age be increased to 72, rather than 70, it also would just make it a little bit easier for towns to be able to continue to employ fire and police members.” 

The bill was introduced in February and had a hearing on Oct. 31. Blais said the committee will now take into account any testimony submitted and determine if it will be reported out of committee. 

In March, New Salem voters adopted an article authorizing their Selectboard to petition the state Legislature to pass a bill allowing Fire Chief Joe Cuneo to serve until age 70, his retirement or his non-reappointment, whichever occurs first. Wendell voters adopted a similar article at their town Special Town Meeting earlier this month. Cuneo has been chief in New Salem since 2008 and in Wendell since 2014. He holds each part-time position independently of the other. Cuneo turned 65 in October.

In June, Bernardston Town Meeting approved an article petitioning the Legislature to approve special legislation so that Fire Chief Peter Shedd could serve in his position until age 70, rather than the usual maximum age of 65. Following this approval, Bernardston Town Coordinator Lou Bourdeux said the town reached out to Comerford and Blais’ offices and bill H.4064—that the town of Bernardston be authorized to continue Shedd’s employment as fire chief—was filed Aug. 21 and had a hearing on Sept. 26. As of Nov. 8, the Joint Committee on Public Service is reviewing the bill before potentially moving it forward. 

Shedd, who served as fire chief since 1996, was placed on leave on Oct. 18, as he was about to turn 65 years old and the bill has yet to be decided on. Shedd said that because he’s on a leave of absence, he lost his position as commissioner with the Massachusetts Fire Service, a role that he took on last year.

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“I am not happy with the Selectboard’s decision, I have done nothing wrong,” said Shedd. “I am just trying to serve my department and town. [I’m] frustrated with the state and the fact that no one can offer guidance or direction. I am not going to leave my department hanging in limbo...I will continue to support my fellow firefighters and the citizens of Bernardston.” 

Bordeux said that Bernardston Selectboard Chair Stan Garland suggested asking Town Council for their opinion on allowing Shedd to serve in a volunteer position until the special legislation gets passed. Since Shedd has been placed on leave, Bernardston’s Fire Department’s Assistant Chief Lloyd Grover has stepped up and was appointed interim chief on Oct. 31.