We are surprised by few things but troubled by many.
We are not surprised, for example, that Smithfield firefighters declined to say which benefit they preferred – taxpayer support of their 401(k) retirement accounts or taxpayer support of dependent-care health insurance. But we’re troubled that they refused to answer the question.
One of two things likely happened here, and either one suggests a lack of respect for authority in town hall.
It’s possible that Smithfield firefighters decided individually or among themselves not to respond to a survey ordered by councilmen, drafted by the town manager and given to them, we assume, by their supervisor, Fire Chief Patrick Harris. If so, the firefighters have showed little respect for their bosses – little respect for authority – and that’s troubling.
Troubling because the town council sets legally binding policy implemented by the town manager and managed on a day-to-day basis by department heads.
In the case of the fire department, that department head is Mr. Harris, a longtime town employee who is surely deserving of respect.
We understand that firefighters cherish all of their benefits and want to keep them, but in refusing to answer a question posed by their bosses, they disobeyed a directive and should be subject to appropriate discipline.
It’s possible, too, that Mr. Harris told or encouraged his firefighters not to answer the benefits question. Mr. Harris has always struck us as fiercely protective of his employees – the kind of guy who would be a union rep if North Carolina allowed such things in local government.
But loyalty to one’s employees does not give a department head license to ignore a legitimate order from a superior.
We don’t know how this particular snub came about. Perhaps Town Manager Paul Sabiston is still too new to command the respect that his position deserves. Or perhaps firefighters would have refused to answer the question for any manager.
Either way, the town manager, with the full support of the town council, needs to let firefighters know that they do have bosses who have every right to expect them to do as they’re told.