Pa. FD accepts FF resignation amidst far-right group controversy

The Bon Fire Company has officially reopened, and officials agreed to reshape its leadership board, institute sensitivity training and revise its bylaws


By Katie Park
The Philadelphia Inquirer

HAVERTOWN, Pa — After shutting down the Bon Air Fire Company last week for its refusal to part with a volunteer who admitted he tried to join the extremist group Proud Boys, Haverford officials announced Monday evening that they had come to an agreement with the firehouse and would reinstate the company.

The fire company will reshape its leadership board — which had defended volunteer Bruce McClay Jr. for weeks — institute sensitivity training, and revise its bylaws, Haverford Board of Commissioners President Andy Lewis said Monday evening.

The Bon Fire Company was established in 1918. (Photo/Bon Fire Company)
The Bon Fire Company was established in 1918. (Photo/Bon Fire Company)

Earlier in the day, the fire company said it had agreed to accept McClay’s resignation. That came after town officials had urged them to do so for weeks.

“We agree with the township that the board of the Bon Air Fire Company should have accepted the resignation because it is important that all volunteers who represent the township do so free from bias and without discrimination,” the fire company said in a statement Monday, hours before Lewis planned to deliver remarks about Bon Air at a regularly scheduled board meeting at Township Hall.

The statement further noted Bon Air would revise its current antidiscrimination policies so “that volunteers who engage in hate speech or join hate groups are not welcome in the Bon Air Fire Company.”

Until Monday, Bon Air’s board had maintained the position that McClay, an esteemed six-year member of the company, had done nothing wrong by attempting to join an organization classified as a hate group.

The changes to Bon Air “reflect a board willing to take responsibility for its actions,” Lewis said in a brief prepared speech. The township, Lewis added, will return to Bon Air the three fire trucks and apparatus it repossessed last Wednesday when Township Manager David F. Burman announced in a statement that he had shut down the 37-member company.

After Lewis finished his statement, the board immediately moved on to other business.

The audience did not.

Attendees used their time for public comment to yell at commissioners — with some accusing them of policing thought and threatening public safety — while others spoke of their appreciation for the township. A few defended the Proud Boys and said it was not a hate group.

“I’m proud of my fellow commissioners for our unified action," Larry Holmes, vice president of the town’s Board of Commissioners, said Monday night.

Both McClay and the fire company’s board have declined to be interviewed on the matter. McClay did not attend Monday night’s meeting.

"We’re just happy we’re back in service,” said a man who opened the door to the Bon Air Fire Company on Monday night, saying the firehouse had finished its monthly meeting and people were readying to go home. He declined to give his name because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

Asked what McClay would do now that he resigned, he shrugged.

“I think they’re going to be a little more careful,” meeting attendee Janice Wilson said of Bon Air. “They’re going to think a little more about what’s going on.”

Monday night’s decision largely capped a month of mounting controversy that came to a head last week when the town authorized the shuttering of the fire company at 541 Royal Ave. in Havertown.

In the days following the town’s announcement, the Bon Air Fire Company had shot back vehemently, saying McClay "had not engaged in any activity in violation of the mission of the Fire Company to serve the Haverford community.”

In mid-August, town officials were notified that McClay, a lieutenant with the fire company who was also vice president of Bon Air’s board, had been trying to join the Proud Boys, passing two of the four steps to initiation and attending “several social events.”

On Aug. 22, Bon Air’s lawyer emailed Haverford’s lawyer to say the company would not dismiss McClay.

Lawyers for Bon Air’s board, Robert Donohue and Sean Murphy, have not responded to requests for comment, nor have Haverford’s attorneys, Jim Byrne or Kelly Sullivan.

McClay told Haverford officials that he began to distance himself from the Proud Boys "after he learned more about the group’s beliefs.”

According to the Anti-Defamation League, the Proud Boys are “overtly Islamophobic and misogynistic, and some members are also anti-Semitic and racist." Members were present at the “Unite the Right” white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017.

Haverford’s officials said they would not have shut down the company had Bon Air’s board accepted McClay’s resignation.

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©2019 The Philadelphia Inquirer

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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