Service Nova Scotia staying out of fire services dispute – for now

West Hants warden makes e-mail correspondence public information

Carole Morris-Underhill
Published on March 12, 2014

Although contract negotiations between the Windsor Fire Department and Municipality of West Hants have stalled, the local firefighting force continues to provide service and mutual aid to rural residents.

While providing his monthly report to council Tuesday night, March 11, the warden for West Hants was looking to clear up some confusion with regards to fire services.

Warden Richard Dauphinee brought forward correspondence between the Windsor Fire Department (WFD) and Service Nova Scotia as a way to address “misinformation.”

The e-mail correspondence in question, sent from Sarah Hann on behalf of Mark Peck, a municipal advisor at Service Nova Scotia and Municipal Relations, was sent to Windsor Fire Chief Scott Burgess and copied to West Hants CAO Cheryl Chislett, Windsor CAO Louis Coutinho, and Crystal Smith, of the WFD's executive.

“Basically, we received the letter because we questioned why Service Nova Scotia would be working with the volunteer fire department – a registered society. Service Nova Scotia works with municipal units. They are our municipal advisors,” said Dauphinee in an interview following council's regular monthly meeting.

Questions about Service Nova Scotia's involvement with the WFD arose after a special committee of the whole meeting was held between the WFD executive and West Hants council on Feb. 24. At that meeting, where the WFD executive provided answers to West Hants' seven main concerns involving their fire services relationship, Burgess referred to seeking advice from Service Nova Scotia. When making a point on ownership of assets, Burgess noted: “And again, we're not here to upset you or debate this but we have addressed this with the proper people: Service Nova Scotia. That's who we all work under.”

At the March 11 council meeting, Dauphinee wanted the public, and fellow councillors, to understand it's not in that provincial department's mandate to provide advice to the fire department.

The e-mail, dated Feb. 28 at 3:59 p.m., notes Burgess sought assistance from Service Nova Scotia to aid them in settling the outstanding issues between the WFD and West Hants council.

The WFD has continued to provide fire coverage to West Hants despite not having a contract in place for nearly four years. West Hants announced in 2013 they wanted to pursue a new way of doing business. One of their main objectives is to not be locked into a contractual agreement with the WFD.

The Feb. 28 e-mail, written by Peck, states: “The division would see it as inappropriate to provide assistance to one party. It is not our intention to have the perception of taking one side or the other on such a sensitive issue. Our role is to work with municipalities and the WFD is a registered society (Society #2371073). It is not our role to provide advice to registered societies.”

The letter further states that Peck and the fire chief discussed “many of the relationship nuances between the WFD and the recipients of the fire services” on Feb. 21.

“My suggestion to you as an employee of the Town of Windsor was that a mediator was an option whereby a facilitated discussion may enable short term and long term solutions. The division has also extended that suggestion to West Hants,” the letter reads.

Another issue West Hants has with the WFD is that Burgess is considered a Town of Windsor employee and is a paid chief.

Peck further stated in his e-mail that due to the unresolved matter of a conflict of interest involving a municipal councillor, moving forward with a mediator is not presently an option.

“Given the immediate circumstances that both parties cannot meet at this time it would appear as though a mediator would serve no purpose. Until both parties are able to discuss the topic unencumbered, a path forward remains unresolved,” the letter reads. “To conclude, Municipal Services is not able to assist the WFD at this point.”

Dauphinee noted that talks between the WFD executive and the municipality are at a standstill while they await the attorney general's investigation into Victor Swinamer's alleged conflict of interest. Swinamer, a Falmouth councillor, is the father-in-law of Burgess. He was accused in 2013 of being in a conflict of interest after he began voting on motions relating to Windsor fire services.

Following the meeting, Dauphinee said one concern he has with the e-mail that was sent from Peck was that it was copied to the town's CAO as well.

“The Town of Windsor was not supposed to be involved in this because they're a separate side of the fire department,” said Dauphinee in the interview. “That could just be an honest mistake but it shouldn't have happened.”

Following the meeting, the Hants Journal asked Burgess for a response to council raising the Service Nova Scotia e-mail.

“The Windsor Fire Department understands the issues between our organization and the West Hants Municipal Council are not the responsibility of Service Nova Scotia, but we felt it is important that they are aware of the situation given the potential larger implications if we are unable to work out a service agreement,” said Burgess, representing the WFD's executive, in an e-mail.

“At this point we are running out of options to try and convince West Hants to sit at the table with us and discuss solutions for fire service. We remain committed to keeping our communities safe, but, having not been paid in almost a year, cannot sustain this service much longer under the current circumstances.”