HUNDRED, W.Va.(WBOY) — The head of the Hundred Volunteer Fire Department has been at the center of controversy in the past week after an anonymous letter was released to the public and members of the press in what Hundred Mayors called a “vindictive way of making [the chief] looks bad.”
On March 19, an anonymous letter was sent to several media outlets raising concern over the fact that the current head of the Hundred Volunteer Fire Department, Tom Powell, is on the West Virginia Sex Offender Registry. The letter also cites that under West Virginia State Code §15-5-15, no person may be employed or associated in any capacity with any emergency services organization established under this section who has been convicted of a felony, like Powell.
According to the WV sex offenders register, in 1997, Powell was convicted of five counts of second-degree sexual assault contact in the state of Wyoming and served approximately seven years in a correctional facility; the victim was a woman between the ages of 13 and 17, and Powell was 38 at the time of the verdict.
On Friday, March 24, Powell, who has worked for the department since 2008, announced on Facebook that he would be stepping down from his position as fire chief after the letter went viral in the community.
“As of this morning, I have resigned from the position of Chief as well as the fire department,” Powell said in a Facebook post. “Those of you who care deeply about my past, I hope you step up and fill that void.”
The following day, Hundred Major Chip Goff posted a video statement on his own Facebook page, saying that the Town of Hundred did not currently accept Powell’s resignation, and would work with the West Virginia Fire Marshal’s office and its own legal counsel to find out how or whether Powell can remain in his position as Hundred volunteer fire chief.
“In Tom’s years of service, we haven’t had a single complaint, not a single concern, not a single incident about him,” says Goff. “Tom has shown dedication, passion and pure goodwill in caring for those who need help from the fire department.”
Goff continued, claiming that Powell made no attempt to hide his past from the public, and said that Powell joined the Hundred VFD with permission from the Fire Marshal’s office by advocacy signed by members of the HVFD.
Between Powell’s original resignation announcement and subsequent postings, the majority of comments were positive towards Powell, but there were some who expressed discomfort with having a registered sex offender in a leadership position within the community. Whether the community wants Powell as their fire chief or not, Powell’s legality in holding that position is still questionable.
12 News spoke with Hundred Cities legal counsel on Tuesday, who said the key question is whether voluntary fire departments count as “emergency services organizations.” Because the department is voluntary, and therefore its members are not counties or employees, the city is not clear whether the department is bound by this section.
§15-5-15 has gone through at least three different iterations in WV law, first in 1953, another in 1973, and finally in 2006. Although the definition of an organization of emergency services is not given in the current version of the law, there is one that provided in version 1973, which explicitly lists the fire service.
When asked by 12 News on Monday, Wetzel County Commission President Lisa Heasley said the commission had not been consulted about Powell’s hiring and had no information or comment to release at that time.
Hundred’s legal counsel on the matter said the city is waiting in the West Virginia Fire Marshal’s office for a decision or statement on the situation and is doing its best to ensure everything is above board and within state law. While there have been no public complaints about Powell, his joining the department coupled with recent outcry from members of the public has brought attention to the fact that sex offenders may still be able to join other emergency services organizations in the future if there is no official or legal precedent. Mayor Goff said in a statement that an interim fire chief had been appointed on a temporary basis.