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.

(2) comments

Cathy Ryan

Here is the full statement that I submitted to the reporter, Scooter MacMillan. He chose only to print part of it. In addition, there is an error in the article. The facebook page was not "private". It was public. Anyone could see the meme, whether they were facebook friends with Barber or not. My full statement:

Mr. Barber's long service to the citizens of Hinesburg is commendable - firefighting is a courageous pursuit that deserves admiration. But he is incorrect about this - my sending the meme to the Select Board had nothing to do with the questions I've had regarding the ambulance budgets. I would have sent that meme to the Select Board if ANY town employee or official had posted it. Apparently he thinks I also sent the other memes to Town officials. I did not - I am not involved with the “concerned group of Hinesburg citizens" who sent those other memes.

Despite his initial apology, Mr. Barber seems inclined to make excuses (he said he didn't know the meme had homophobic overtones, then said he didn't see the image at all before he shared it), and blame others for the controversy, rather than taking true accountability for the situation. His response is as much of a problem as his posts.

Heymen's

A vast population of Hinesburg residents support Cathy's position on this issue including us. Al Barber's response to his abhorrent action as a leader in our community, as well as the response of his supporters in the fire department, is very concerning. We hope that the new chief will be an outsider who can redirect the department to be more professional than this behavior showed.

There are a great many people in town who find all the chief's responses laughable and are disgusted he's even staying with the department. Thank you Cathy for being willing to speak out because it's making a difference.

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