BROWNVILLE, Maine — A Brownville firefighter and emergency medical technician who was convicted of stealing from a fire department where he worked in New Hampshire will serve as the town’s next fire chief.
Shawn Mitchell, who has worked as a volunteer firefighter for Brownville since June 2020 and as assistant chief since June 2021, was appointed to chief by the town’s select board earlier this week. He is one of several new chiefs around Piscataquis County who begin work Jan. 1, 2023.
In 2006, Mitchell was charged with about 40 theft-related offenses, which were pleaded down to two charges, according to the Concord Monitor. In 2010, he was convicted of a felony for fraudulent use of a credit card in Concord, New Hampshire, where he worked as deputy fire chief. He also pleaded guilty to misdemeanor theft.
Mitchell’s criminal background has led some people to question his ability to lead the department, but town leaders said he was upfront about his past and called him an asset to Brownville. The town is also implementing a policy that requires Mitchell to file a purchase order for items and equipment exceeding $250, Town Manager Felice Lyford said.
The agreement allows the town to keep fire department purchases transparent, according to Mitchell, who said he suggested the idea.
“We didn’t put this in place because we are concerned that he would steal anything,” said Lyford, who consulted with the town’s insurance agency and lawyer about the policy. “We put it in place to protect everyone in the situation so there is no view of impropriety.”
No other department heads are required to follow the same written procedure as Mitchell, but in general they keep the town manager informed about expenses that are beyond the regular course of business, Lyford said.
Mitchell used a city-issued credit card to purchase fire equipment for Concord’s department and took it to Webster, where he worked as volunteer fire chief, he said Thursday about his conviction from 2010. He served a six-month sentence, according to the Concord Monitor.
Mitchell also works as a per-diem firefighter in Dover-Foxcroft and as the emergency management agency director in Brownville, a position with a $2,000 annual stipend. From March 2020 to June 2021, he served on the town’s select board, Lyford said.
The fire chief’s compensation is a $5,500 annual stipend, and payment is provided on a quarterly basis, she said.
Lyford was not town manager when Mitchell started working for the town in a volunteer capacity, but officials looked into his history, which he was honest about, she said. She became town manager in January.
Brownville leaders gave examples of Mitchell’s contributions, including securing thousands of dollars in grants that benefited the town and growing the department’s roster and EMS program that received licensure this summer.
Brownville and Dover-Foxcroft have conducted background checks, and because of Mitchell’s felony record, the state did a thorough investigation before issuing him an emergency medical services license earlier this month, he said.
The process — where state officials consider the crime and its severity, how much time has passed, whether the person accepts responsibility and other factors — took about a year and Mitchell wasn’t guaranteed a license at the end of it, he said.
Because of Mitchell’s experience in emergency medical care and fighting fires, he was tapped for various positions in Piscataquis, he said. He has taken ownership of his past and has not tried to hide it from the communities where he works, he said.
“They recognized that I have something to offer their communities,” he said. “People are quick to judge things. They don’t weigh the benefits and contributions that I’ve made since then [being convicted] and continue to make.”
Brownville Fire Chief Kevin Black, who will step down and serve as assistant chief, doesn’t have concerns about the transition. He encouraged concerned residents and Mainers to look at what Mitchell has achieved since his conviction, particularly his devotion to the town’s EMS program.
The two men worked closely on the effort, and Mitchell took on a significant role training new members who needed to get their license before the program could get underway, Black said.
In the last year and a half, the department has grown from 15 to 32 people because the EMS program brought newcomers on board, plus leaders have increased recruitment and dedicated more time to training, Mitchell said.
“He is super educated and probably one of the most devoted guys I’ve ever had in the fire service,” Black said about Mitchell. “He lives fighting fire and he’s very good at it. I want people to understand that he’s just phenomenal in what he does around here.”