HUNDRED, W.Va. (WBOY) — The chief of the Hundred Volunteer Fire Department has become the center of a controversy in the last week after an anonymous letter was released to the public and members of the press in what the Hundred Mayor calls a “vindictive way to make [the chief] look bad.”
On March 19 an anonymous letter was sent to several media outlets raising concern over the fact that the current Hundred Volunteer Fire Department chief, Tom Powell, is on the West Virginia Sex Offender Registry. The letter also cited that under West Virginia State Code §15-5-15, no person may be employed or associated in any capacity with any emergency service organization established under this article who has been convicted of a felony, which Powell has been.
According to the WV sex offender registry, 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 female between the ages of 13 and 17, and Powell was 38 years old at the time of conviction.
On Friday, March 24, Powell, who has been with the department since 2008, announced on Facebook he would be stepping down from his position as fire chief after the letter circulated throughout the community.
“As of this morning, I have resigned from the Chief position as well as the fire dept.,” Powell said in a Facebook post. “For those of you that were so concerned about my past, I hope you step up and fill the gap.”
The following day, Hundred Mayor Chip Goff put a video statement on his own Facebook page, saying that the Town of Hundred has currently not accepted Powell’s resignation, and would be working with the West Virginia Fire Marshal’s office and its own legal counsel to see how or if Powell can remain in his position as Hundred’s volunteer fire chief.
“During Tom’s years of service, we haven’t had one complaint, not one concern, not one incident about him,” Goff said. “Tom has shown dedication, passion and pure good intentions in treating those in need of aid from the fire department.”
Goff continued, claiming that Powell made no attempts to hide his past from the community, and said that Powell joined the Hundred VFD with permission from the Fire Marshal’s office with an advocation signed by members of the HVFD.
Between Powell’s original resignation announcement and a later post, a majority of comments were positive toward Powell, but there were some that expressed discomfort over having a registered sex offender in a position of leadership within the community. Whether the community wants Powell as its fire chief or not, the legality of Powell holding the position is still in question.
12 News spoke with the legal advisor of the Town of Hundred on Tuesday, who said that the key question is whether volunteer fire departments are considered “emergency service organizations.” Because the department is volunteer, and therefore its members are not county or Hundred employees, it’s unclear to the town if 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 most recently in 2006. Although a definition of emergency service organizations is not given in the current version of the law, there is one provided in the 1973 version, which explicitly lists firefighting services.
When asked by 12 News on Monday, Wetzel County Commission President Lisa Heasley said the commission was not consulted regarding Powell’s hire and had no information or comment to release at that time.
Hundred’s legal counsel for this matter said the town is waiting on the West Virginia Fire Marshal’s office for a ruling or statement on the situation and is doing its best to make sure everything is above board and in accordance with state law. Although there have not been any public complaints made about Powell, his original joining of the department coupled with recent outcry from members of the public brings attention to the fact that sex offenders may still be able to join other emergency service organizations in the future if there is no official or legal precedent. Mayor Goff said in his statement that an interim fire chief has been appointed in the meantime.