Former Stanley fire leader: ‘Tumultuous’ relationship with officials before restructuring

Stanley’s former assistant fire chief described a “tumultuous” relationship with town officials over the past few years, in an interview with WBTV.
Published: Nov. 16, 2023 at 4:31 PM EST|Updated: Nov. 16, 2023 at 4:35 PM EST
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STANLEY, N.C. (WBTV) -Stanley’s former assistant fire chief Michael Hullett described a “tumultuous” relationship with town officials over the past few years, in an interview with WBTV on Thursday.

Over the past three days, Hullett and other firefighters say more than two dozen volunteer and part-time firefighters have resigned from the Stanley Fire Department after the town council abruptly dissolved the part-time chief and assistant chief positions Monday night.

Town officials have not responded to repeated questions to confirm the number of firefighters who have resigned.

RELATED: ‘Demand an answer’: Amid mass firefighter resignation, Stanley town officials say little

Also on Monday, the town immediately named a full-time interim fire chief, Gary Hilton. In an email sent to Hullett and former chief Eric Withers after the vote Monday, they were ordered to immediately stop using town credit cards and retrieve their personal belongings from the department.

Less than two hours after receiving that email at 7:30 on Monday, Hullett said, he was locked out of his work accounts.

Fire department restructuring came as shock

“I had absolutely no idea,” Hullett said of the vote to restructure the department.

“I’m not mad they replaced us. We need a full-time chief. I would have been more than happy to stand in and help out through a transition period if that had just been communicated. Very unprofessional, the way this was handled.”

Town officials issued a statement after the vote to restructure the department, attributing the decision to a need to adjust funding to a single full-time position, and an increase in response areas. On Facebook, the official town page restricted comments on the post after residents expressed their displeasure.

“This new model will ensure Stanley and its citizens are the number one priority, by having a full-time department head that will work alongside the other department heads, including public works, finance, planning, police, recreation, and utility billing,” the statement read.

But among the questions that town officials haven’t answered include why they didn’t consider one of their longtime current leaders for the interim full-time role. Both former leaders have served for years at the Charlotte Fire Department. Hullett just won a statewide Firefighter of the Year award and has been with the SFD for nine years.

Mayor Steven Denton and town manager Heath Jenkins have not explained why the leaders weren’t given notice and abruptly dissolved of their jobs without a discussion about the restructuring.

At publishing time, town officials also hadn’t provided the resume or any other credentials for Hilton, the new interim chief.

Mutual aid agreements ensure that neighboring departments will still be able to help respond to fires in the meantime. Earlier this week, town officials claimed to have ten or more applications for new firefighters.

However, state law requires new firefighters go through background checks and drug testing, a process that can take at least a few days.

Hullett cites ‘tumultuous’ relationship with officials

For years, Hullet said, he and Withers have asked the town council to create full-time firefighting positions in the town budget.

“The council has denied it every single year” since 2016, Hullett said. “I don’t think the town administration liked the fact that we pointed out discrepancies within the fire department and the town itself. Sometimes when you’re asking for things constantly, it’s looked at as a necessary evil.”

“Very tumultuous at best,” Hullett said of his relationship with the mayor and town manager. “There was very little communication. It was hard to get information.”

Hullett is clear about a few things: this is just his side of the story. In documents shared with WBTV, he was quick to insist that he not speculate when asked questions about issues he was not sure of.

“There’s three sides to every story, right? My side, their side, and the truth,” he reflected. But ultimately, he says he’s speaking out because of the depth of experience that has now left the department.

“The pile of gear you see in the photos that’s been all over social media, there’s probably about 300 years of experience that walked out the door.”

When Mayor Denton and town manager Jenkins were asked again for interviews on Thursday morning, Jenkins said he was out of town until Monday, and Denton cited his full-time job.

Both said Hullett and Withers “and anyone else” were welcome to apply for the permanent full-time chief job.

Neither responded when offered an opportunity for a Zoom interview instead.

This coverage is developing. Follow our past coverage here:

‘Demand an answer’: Amid mass firefighter resignation, Stanley town officials say little

Controversy brewing as Gaston Co. town reorganizes fire department, public safety operations