After a month of controversy over a meme Al Barber posted that many deemed homophobic, the Hinesburg fire chief is retiring.
But Barber is not retiring because of the controversy, he said.
On May 12, Barber told town manager Todd Odit he planned to retire as fire chief on July 1.
Controversy over Barber began after Cathy Ryan of Hinesburg shared with town officials a meme Barber posted on his private Facebook account with a picture of two men eating a banana together and the words: “How men who want to ban guns eat bananas.”
A subsequent public records request by The Citizen revealed other social media posts on issues such as racial equity or the objectification of women that some Hinesburg residents found offensive.
Since the controversy erupted, there have been both calls for his resignation and support for him remaining on the job.
The homophobic nature of the meme prompted some advocacy groups and individuals to wonder if people of color, people who identify as LGBTQ+, or other marginalized groups would be treated appropriately by fire department members.
Barber said this week that he’d planned to retire in October, long before the meme melee began. He moved the date up to July 1 as it is when the new fiscal year starts, he said.
The volunteer fire chief urged the town to switch to a full-time paid fire chief. Barber is paid a stipend of $12,000 a year.
Odit said as town manager he has the authority to decide if the town switches to a full-time fire chief, but he has not yet made that decision.
He expects to appoint an interim fire chief until a permanent chief is hired, but he doesn’t know who that will be.
In a phone conversation, Barber claimed coverage of the meme issue has been unfair.
“Your whole paper is all about character assassination and doesn’t want to listen to the whole story,” Barber said.
Barber said Ryan “started the controversy” because she opposes Hinesburg creating an ambulance service. Ryan sent an email with the banana meme to town officials and wrote, “I thought you all should know what fire chief Al Barber thinks about guns and gays.”
Barber said he often posted memes from both sides of a number of different issues without comment, from Republicans and Democrats and in support of and in opposition to gun control on his Facebook account — which he has since shutdown.
He said he never commented on these posts because he didn’t want people to know what his opinion was. He wanted to challenge people to think.
Ryan only selected memes from one perspective because of her opposition to the ambulance service, Barber said.
“Barber’s long service to the citizens of Hinesburg is commendable — firefighting is a courageous pursuit that deserves admiration — but he is incorrect ... my sending the meme to the selectboard had nothing to do with the questions I’ve had regarding the ambulance budgets,” Ryan said. “I would have sent that meme to the selectboard if any town employee or official had posted it.”
Barber became fire chief 22 years ago. He has been a member of the department for 43 years, and will remain on the force after his stint as chief ends.