LAWRENCE — With firehouse closures, layoffs and budget battles, there hasn't been much to laugh about lately when it comes to the city's Fire Department. Yesterday, Mayor William Lantigua tried to lighten the mood a bit as he officially promoted four veteran firefighters, including Deputy Chief Jack Bergeron to provisional fire chief.
Standing with Bergeron, Lantigua said, "Part of the reason I promoted him is because of his haircut."
Both men are bald, resulting in laughter from family and friends who gathered in Lantigua's City Hall office.
Bergeron, a city native who joined the Fire Department 35 years ago and has been a deputy chief since 1989, is taking over after fellow firefighter Brian Murphy resigned as provisional chief.
Murphy, who resigned publicly at a City Council meeting last month, said he felt the mayor saddled the Fire Department with budget cuts and unfairly tried to gag him when he spoke out on department manpower and safety issues.
As Murphy returns to the rank of deputy chief, civil service law requires the senior deputy, Bergeron, to succeed him.
"You have more than demonstrated your desire to do the best for the city of Lawrence," Lantigua said of Bergeron.
He added that he hoped Bergeron would be with the Fire Department over the next three years, the remainder of the mayor's current term in office.
Lantigua has pushed to remove the fire chief's job from civil service jurisdiction. City councilors recently agreed to file a home rule petition with the state Legislature to do so.
However, even if Lantigua is allowed to cast a wide net for the fire chief's position, nothing prevents him from hiring a department veteran, such as Bergeron.
As provisional chief, Bergeron said a first priority will be meeting with officials and working together to administer a $6.6 million federal grant the department recently received. The money will allow the department to rehire laid off firefighters.
Also yesterday, for the first time as mayor, Lantigua made several permanent promotions in the Fire Department.
Those stepping up were Michael Blanchard, a 23-year firefighter promoted to lieutenant, James Driscoll, a 9-year firefighter promoted to lieutenant, and Jack Meaney, a 17-year veteran who was reinstated as captain.
Meaney was demoted in July 2010 when 24 firefighters were laid off due to budget cuts. Driscoll also was laid off last July but rehired in September 2010 when the city and the firefighters union reached a cost-savings agreement.
Retired fire Chief Peter Takvorian also came by yesterday and snapped pictures during the ceremony.
All four men wore dress uniforms. Meaney noted his dress uniform includes the same silver buttons that once adorned his father's dress uniform. The old buttons read "City of Lawrence Fire Department," while uniforms issued nowadays just say "Fire Department," he said.
His father, Capt. Walter Meaney, a 32-year Fire Department veteran, died in 1979 from cancer he developed on the job. He was trapped in a pump house loaded with chlorine gas. His doctors later traced the cancer back to that exposure, he said.