Ten vie for five Commissioner slots

Chairman Mathews bows out; Stevenson steps up; election brings Rollins-Willis rematch

By Robert Lynch; November 29, 2023

Current Chairman Jim Mathews won’t be on the ballot; but ten people, including Fire Chief Greg Stevenson, will be there, competing for all five seats on Enfield’s newly-formed Board of Fire Commissioners, according to a list of candidate nominees released by Fire District officials late Tuesday.

Swearing the Interim Commissioners and Treasurer into office last August; Robyn Wishna and Jim Mathews (far left); Barry Rollins and Geoff Hollister (far right).

Joining Chief Stevenson as candidates for the Fire District’s December 12th election will be three interim appointees to the Commission named by the Enfield Town Board in August; Robyn Wishna, Marcus Gingerich, and Enfield Highway Superintendent Barry “Buddy” Rollins.

In an interesting political twist, one of the candidates competing against Rollins will be Chris Willis, the Black Oak Road resident who earlier this month lost to Rollins in the Highway Superintendent’s re-election race.

The candidate list’s major surprise came in Chairman Jim Mathews’ decision not to seek voter approval for what could be as long as a five-year term of elective office.

“The reasons are multiple, but the simplest is that I just can’t devote the time that’s required to do this job correctly,” Mathews wrote this Town Councilperson in an email late Wednesday, responding to the question as to why Mathews chose not to seek election.  “I think this is an incredibly important moment for the Town and for our fire and life safety agenda,” the current Chairman continued.  “In many ways, I think I bring the right mix of background and skills to do the job well…but the most important qualification, in my view, is time. And that I have nearly zero to contribute,” Mathews said.

A transplant to Enfield in 2018, Jim Mathews was elected Chairman by his fellow Commissioners during their inaugural meeting August ninth.  Formerly an active firefighter and medic in Fairfax County, Virginia, Mathews serves currently as President and CEO of the Washington-based Rail Passengers Association.  His job has led to much out-of-town travel, including his flights abroad that have occasionally forced him in recent months to miss Fire Commissioners’ meetings altogether or to attend them remotely.

A second appointed member of the Board will also not compete in the December election.  Geoffrey Hollister, who brought experience as a former Fire Commissioner in the Richford Fire District, chose not to submit his name by the election’s November 22nd filing deadline. Hollister conducted Commissioners’ meetings in Mathews’ absence.  But at times during the Enfield Fire District’s formative discussions in recent months, Hollister expressed frustration concerning the lack of guidance as Commissioners struggled to piece organizational affairs together.

But Superintendent Rollins clearly is running.  He’s been criticized by some in Enfield’s firefighting community for harboring alleged anti-firefighter bias.  On the other hand, entering the contest clearly on the side of the Enfield Volunteer Fire Company (EVFC) and its volunteers is Fire Chief Greg Stevenson. 

Chief Stevenson, who’s made no secret in recent months of his interest in a Commissioner’s slot, will need to relinquish his position of Chief should he win election as Commissioner.  Fire Company elections are said to be scheduled next week.

Aside from Wishna, Rollins, and Gingerich, each of whom plan to run; and Mathews and Hollister, who will not do so, only long-time Enfield volunteer Larry Stillwell stands among those candidates for Commissioner that were considered by the Town Board for interim appointment last August and who retain continued interest and have filed plans to run.

In addition to Stevenson, Wishna, Rollins, Gingerich, Willis and Stillwell, the candidate field includes former Town Councilperson Robert Harvey; Enfield Codes Officer and former Fire Company Assistant Chief Alan Teeter; the Fire District’s volunteer Secretary, Alexis Comparetta; and Weatherby Road resident Donald Gunning.

As posted on the Enfield Town website, the Enfield Fire District election is set for Tuesday, December 12th, with voting hours from 3 PM until 9 PM at the Enfield Fire House.  Enfield registered voters will elect all five commissioners.  And the candidate who receives the largest number of votes will receive the longest term.  The highest vote-getter will secure a five-year term of office.  The fifth-position winner will gain just one year in office, and will have to run for a full, five-year term the following year, in 2024.

The Board of Fire Commissioners’ first meeting, also August 9.

State law clearly states that part of the election procedure.  But the controlling statutes leave a gaping procedural hole.  It’s the question of whether Enfield voters next month get the opportunity to vote for just one candidate or for as many as five, one to fill each position of Commissioner.

The statute appears silent, and sources indicate lawyers are divided on an interpretation. The statute directs the Fire District’s Secretary—presumably, a stand-in for Comparetta, as she is also a candidate—to prepare the ballot.  But the Secretary would still need to act on solid legal instructions.  And conflicting legal opinions as to the number of votes anyone is allowed to cast could plunge the matter into court prior to the fast-approaching Enfield election.  Expect this legal issue to play out within days.

A couple of those who were expected at first to enter the race for Fire Commissioner have chosen to remain on the sidelines.  Enfield firefighter, EMT and Fire Company Secretary Ellen Woods declined to file.  Likewise, Roy Barriere, a former Town Supervisor who’d expressed tepid interest at the time commissioners were appointed, has chosen not to apply.  Long-time EVFC President Dennis Hubbell has also stayed out of the race.

But Jim Mathews impending departure from the Enfield Board of Fire Commissioners—and to perhaps a lesser extent, Geoff Hollister’s forthcoming exit as well—will bring a marked change to the restructuring of fire services in Enfield. 

The Town Board created the Enfield Fire District in June of this year and transferred fire protection service to it in August with its appointment of the five interim commissioners, including Mathews and Hollister.  And from then on, Mathews largely took over, guiding a majority on the Board to his point of view.  Mathews’ leadership—for better or worse—led to the successful October 31st referendum that approved the Fire District’s purchase and eventual bonding of more than $1 Million in fire apparatus, trucks acquired from the EVFC.  Jim Mathews’ fingerprints were all over the bonding resolution. 

“My favorite thing that I ever did in my life was join the Fire Department,” Mathews said during introductory remarks after having been tapped as the Board of Commissioners’ chairman August 9th.  And as to being Commissioner, he continued, “My wife said to me, ‘Jimmy, is this a good idea?’”  His reply to her, “I raised my hand for this.  We’ll see.  Maybe it was; maybe it wasn’t.  But I want to try.”

Jim Mathews tried.  And now he’s lowered his hand. 

“It’s a job I would love to do, but only if I can devote myself to doing it properly,” Jim Mathews closed his message to this writer on Wednesday.  “The Town, and my neighbors, deserve better.”

Ten people, including three of Jim Mathews’ current colleagues, similarly want to give it a try for the next five years.  Enfield voters will decide who among them earns that opportunity.