During a phone conversation Wednesday morning, Al Barber confirmed that he is the chief of the Hinesburg Fire Department.
He also said he does not agree that when a public figure posts something on their public Facebook page it is a reflection on their role in the community.
“I have always felt that you have to challenge people to think on their own. Then if you look at the posts — which you can’t anymore because they’re gone because I closed my Facebook account ...” he said, trailing off.
Asked what he was challenging when he shared a busty woman in a meme that reads, “believe in yourself as much as she believes in her blouse buttons,” Barber said, “Right, that’s exactly what you should … what do you think of it?”
Asked what he thought about it, he replied, “No, it’s not about what I think.”
Met with, “I would disagree,” Barber retorted, “You can go ahead and disagree,” before hanging up.
As reported last week, Barber said he shared a meme on April 2 — which he admitted was homophobic — on his personal Facebook page.
He hadn’t read the meme, but simply hit “share,” he said.
According to a public records request, received Tuesday, April 27, this is not an isolated incident.
And, based on comments from Hinesburg residents in the same request — people aren’t happy about it.
Messages on gender and race
At least eight “meme” posts were shared by the chief, dating back to last year, which seem to illustrate opinions on everything from racial equity to the objectification of women.
In addition to the woman who “believed in her buttons,” there was a man depicted holding a cardboard sign, reading, “Can we just agree that we all matter + quit making it about race.”
Shared from the page of Timothy D. Marlow on June 13, the original poster wrote, “Can I get a GREAT BIG AMEN.”
The posts, shared by “a concerned group of Hinesburg citizens,” who in their email said they were unwilling to share their names for fear of retribution from the fire department, wrote, “These continue to show his misogynistic, homophobic and racist manner. He needs to be removed from his post, as women, BIPOC community members and LGBTQ community members can not rely on him to give them the same treatment he might give to his white male friends.”
The group wrote that it was compelled to share after reading last week’s story in The Citizen. In that story, Barber said, “It was absolutely unintentional and there’s people trying to make out that I’m homophobic and all that, and it’s about as far from the truth as you could ever get.”
On Wednesday, April 21, the Hinesburg Selectboard met in a closed, executive session with Barber.
On Thursday, he issued a public apology, which is printed in full in the sidebar accompanying this story.
On April 23, resident Andrea Morgante wrote to the selectboard, “There needs to be a strong message to the public that we as a town need to act with respect for differences of opinion on many issues that come before us from the need for zoning, police, recycling, recreation or an ambulance or firearms and many others.”
The fact that it is a personnel issue, Morgante wrote, should not prevent the board from addressing it.
Responding to her, selectboard member Mike Loner wrote, “Thank you Andrea, I am in full agreement with you about this.”
An anonymous email sent to town leaders showed related Facebook posts from Katie Charbonneau, Barber’s daughter, and Lucas Charbonneau, fire department captain and Barber’s son-in-law, defending the chief.
Lucas Charbonneau wrote, “The only thing that today proved is that media can blow up anything. I hope you are happy the only thing you did today was weaken a already brokered community. #bringbackhinesburg.”
Among those who liked the post were Ed Wait, another fire captain, and Rob Landoli, a lieutenant, according to the anonymous whistleblower.
“So you’ve got multiple members of the HFD essentially defending Barber’s post and ‘liking’ a homophobic comment, and saying only a ‘few people found Barber’s post to be homophobic.’ This runs deep in the HFD,” the unknown writer said.
On Katie Charbonneau’s Facebook page was a comment from Bill Charbonneau Sr.: “He’s a good man and one that wants to keep his guns. All these whine ass out of state liberals coming here trying to take away our rights to bear arms. Most of them are gay.”
Cory Contois posted, “I am so tired of being a white, straight, religious man and being a minority. People need to suck it up. I mean BLM, LGBTQ+, etc. Heaven forbid you say white lives matter! Then you’re a white supremacist!”
Geoffrey Gevalt, of Hinesburg, wrote to the selectboard on April 12 — before reporting occurred — to share disappointment in Barber’s post.
“I thought Al was better than that. He has always struck me as a nice guy with a keen interest in helping the town. But clearly there is a part of Al that I did not know about,” Gevalt wrote.
The banana meme was unbecoming of anyone, Gevalt wrote, much less a public official who represents the community.
“The fact that he saw this as humorous and OK is, well, not OK.”
It’s not about politics for Gevalt, he wrote.
“How, really, can we be sure that Al and his team of firemen and EMTs will assist a gay person to the same extent as a straight person?” he asked.
Gevalt implored the selectboard to encourage Barber’s resignation.
Maggie Gordon, a selectboard member, responded to Gevalt in an email of her own, on April 14, saying, “I’m confident that your reactions are shared by the majority of board members. Joy (Dubin Grossman, acting town manager) has been speaking with the town attorney, and we’re meeting tonight in executive session to discuss options.”
Community member Johanna White, in another email included in the public records request, wrote in part, “Those roles played by someone who would post for public consumption the disgusting picture and sentiment as an opinion of another human being should be the last person to be in contact with the general public’s safety.”
In the Wednesday morning phone call, Barber said the community has nothing to worry about.
“That’s not me, never has been me,” he said. “There’s no one in the public that should be worried about anything. You were never worried about anything before and they shouldn’t be worried about anything else because we’re public servants and we’re there to serve all.”
But Karen Tronsgard-Scott does not feel safe. She worries how the fire department would respond if her family needs help.
“We are no longer sure that we would receive the same response as would our heterosexual neighbors because it is clear that our chief harbors hatred toward members of the LGBTQ community,” Tronsgard-Scott wrote in a letter to this newspaper.
Tronsgard-Scott, who lives in Hinesburg, outlined steps the town could take to repair the town’s relationship with its LGBTQ citizens and their families and allies: assessing all of the town’s departments for cultures of racism, heterosexism and other forms of oppression; developing a plan for cultural change; creating a zero-tolerance policy for racism, heterosexism and other forms of oppression; creating and publishing a town policy on social media for town employees; and listening for other actions to repair the damage.
She said she was not calling for Barber to be dismissed.
“I am ever hopeful that we can unite as a community, even if one of our leaders has caused harm,” said Tronsgard-Scott, who serves as executive director of the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.
On Friday, Barber said he and his daughter had received 30-35 emails of support and none of the emails he received criticized him.
“I’ve got supporting emails from people in the gay community,” he said.
Barber did not respond to a request to share some of those emails with this newspaper.
Selectboard chair Phil Pouech said the session with Barber was a good meeting and a first step, but he did not know what the next step would be.
Concerning whether the selectboard will discuss developing a social media policy for town employees and officials, Pouech said, “You can bet your life on it.”
Board member Gordon said the board was all in agreement, but she wouldn’t comment more than that.
Merrily Lovell declined to comment on the issue. She did say she doesn’t have an opinion about it, “but if I did, I do not think it would serve any purpose other than to inflame a hot issue.”
Board members Loner and Dennis Place did not respond to requests for their thoughts about the meme issue.
Varied community views
The Hinesburg Racial Equity Group said in a letter submitted to The Citizen (see sidebar) that residents should feel safe when calling for fire, police and ambulance services.
“This is not the first time that members of the Hinesburg Fire Department have engaged in social media usage that falls into the category of bullying, hazing and harassment,” Hinesburg Racial Equity Group, a group of citizens that works to identify and address inequities in the town, said in its letter.
The group declined to identify who wrote the letter and said it typically “crafts” messages as a group.
Craig Chevrier, of Hinesburg, thinks Barber should resign.
Chevrier said he supported Tronsgard-Scott’s proposals for steps the town could take to repair the relationship with the LGBTQ community, but he believes the town should form a permanent public safety commission as an oversight body for both fire and police departments.
“Self-governance by department chiefs does not work for consistent community public safety,” Chevrier said on social media.
In a phone conversation, he said his proposed public safety commission should consider the amount being spent on both the fire and police departments and whether the fire chief, firefighters and emergency medical technicians should be employees of the town, rather than volunteers, for more town control and increased public safety.
New town manager Todd Odit started work on Thursday, April 22, so he was not at the selectboard’s closed meeting with Barber the night before.
Odit said he planned to talk with the fire chief Wednesday, April 28. The results of that meeting were not known by press time.