Firefighters from Thorndike and Unity attend a Thorndike Select Board meeting, Feb. 20, 2019. By the time the contentious meeting was over, nearly all the Thorndike volunteer firefighters had resigned. On Saturday, voters in the Waldo County town approved a measure to switch from a volunteer department to a municipal firefighting crew.

Thorndike residents on Saturday voted to replace the town’s self-governing fire department with a municipal-run outfit after all but one member of the department quit last month amid controversy.

Residents voted 73 to 11 to make the switch at the annual town meeting, according to the Waterville Morning Sentinel.

Thorndike’s fire department had been set up differently than the departments in most other towns in Waldo County, which are run by the municipality. In those departments, the town owns the equipment and the chief is either appointed by town officials or elected by residents. But in Thorndike, the fire department was an association, and firefighters voted for the chief and the other officers.

After Saturday’s town meeting vote, the Thorndike Select Board will be in charge of hiring a new fire chief. The department will have the same budget for salaries and equipment as the association did but will operate under closer municipal supervision, as stipulated by the ordinance that voters approved Saturday

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The small Waldo County town’s volunteer firefighting crew came under fire after four Waldo County emergency response officials sent a letter to the Select Board on Jan. 23 that accused the department of unprofessional leadership and endangering other firefighters’ lives. The officials also said that Thorndike’s mutual aid partner communities wanted to dissolve that relationship because of their concerns.

That letter, which became public in mid-February, blindsided the Thorndike’s independent fire fire department, and all but one member of the 28-man department quit on Feb. 20 after a heated Select Board meeting.

“It was a one-way deal. There was no compromise,” an emotional Shawn Bristol, a member of the department, said through tears after the firefighters walked out of the meeting. “All but one person resigned. We are essentially, for now, disbanded.”

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That mass exodus left the department severely understaffed, and it spurred a quick move to bring before voters a proposal to switch to a municipal fire department from an incorporated one.

Joshua Ard, a second selectman, told CBS affiliate WABI that he hopes the move to a municipal fire department will bring “everyone back together” and that residents will feel more comfortable bringing forward complaints

“If they have an issue with the fire department they can come to a selectman meeting, they can talk to us directly whereas before we were essentially hiring the fire department to work itself,” Ard said.

Thorndike residents like Doug Nye told the TV station that they hope the switch will let them put the controversy behind them.

“Right now, we are in a really bad situation, I think, but as far as municipality fire departments, we’ll see how it goes. We did vote for it. I think people just voted out of knowing that things are not going well now and hoping for a change,” Nye told WABI.