By Sharna Johnson, Freedom New Mexico
The Melrose Fire Department is in upheaval after the village mayor and police chief publicly criticized the department’s handling of criminal allegations against a volunteer firefighter.
Fire Chief Kenny Jacobs said three volunteer firefighters have quit and more said they are considering quitting. Jacobs said they’re upset about comments by Mayor Lance Pyle and Police Chief Jennifer Dreiling about the fire department’s failure to suspend a volunteer firefighter after the first of his two drug arrests on June 30.
Jacobs blames the friction on a communication breakdown between his department and Pyle.
“They just feel like it’s a bad deal, (that the) comments that were made by Mayor (Lance) Pyle and our police officer could have been handled differently,” Jacobs said.
Volunteer firefighter Harley Swopes, 22, was arrested Friday on charges of distribution of marijuana and attempted manufacturing of methamphetamine, based on the findings of an October search warrant served at his residence.
He was released Monday on $100,000 bond, jail officials said.
Swopes was also arrested June 30 by Dreiling and charged with possession of marijuana with intent to distribute.
Jacobs said Swopes notified him July 28 he was stepping down as a firefighter at the recommendation of his defense attorney.
Pyle said he stands behind his criticisms of the fire department for not suspending Swopes after the initial arrest, as he recommended.
While Pyle said he has heard rumors of firefighter resignations, he said he has received nothing in writing.
“If people are that upset and they have to walk, then we’ll rebuild the department and (in the meantime) I’ll make sure the citizens have coverage for emergency situations,” Pyle said.
“(But) I will not back down on (the request I made) to have this firefighter on suspension pending the outcome of the court case(s).”
Pyle said he had received nothing in writing reflecting Swopes’ status or from department officials acknowledging his recommendation of suspension when he made the comments Saturday.
He said he received a letter Sunday explaining the department’s decision to retain Swopes. He also received a letter Sunday regarding Swopes’ status. Both were dated July 28.
Jacobs said department officers decided not to suspend Swopes after the June 30 arrest.
“The major thing here is that we acted by our guidelines,” Jacobs said, “and that Melrose Fire Department guidelines are different than the police department and village departments because we are not paid employees. We are volunteers. You can’t fire a volunteer, where you can fire an employee.”
The fire chief added because of Swopes’ probationary firefighter status he would be heavily supervised and his duties limited.
“We don’t feel like we did anything wrong besides support a young man that wanted to help himself and do what’s right.”
Jacobs said Swopes approached him before the first arrest, told him about the suspicion he was under and said investigators threatened to arrest him if he didn’t help them.
“He has come to me every time and let me know what was going on. He has been forthright with me every time and everything he has said to me has had merit. He has been nothing but a very good volunteer for us,” Jacobs said.
Swopes, who could not be reached for comment, passed physical and drug tests and a criminal and driving record background check before joining the fire department in May, Jacobs said.