A Dukes County Superior Court judge sided with dismissed Oak Bluffs fire investigator Peter Martell and ordered him reinstated, and awarded the 37-year department veteran damages and attorney’s fees.
Mr. Martell was suspended in March of 2008, by fire Chief Pete Forend. At the time, Chief Forend said the suspension was based on “continued insubordination, continued failure to follow departmental chain of command, continued misrepresentation of authority, and unauthorized use of department funds.”
“The charges were unfounded,” a pleased Mr. Martell said this week, “there was no evidence. As the judge indicated, even if I was guilty of these things, it didn’t constitute being removed or fired.” He would not say how much the legal action has cost him during its two-year history. He said a total of $2,000 in back pay should be restored to him.
“A lot people are coming up to say congratulations,” Mr. Martell said. “They thought this was foolishness from the beginning. The thing that bothered me most was the charge of misappropriation of department funds. I had no access to fire department money. I don’t steal from the town. They were looking for stuff to nail me.”
Among her findings, Judge Tina S. Page wrote in her June 17 decision, “Although Forend claims that Martell engaged in at least two acts of insubordination, he failed to provide any written or verbal warnings to Martell either at the time of or subsequent to either incident.”
Because Mr. Martell was a fire investigator, not a chief or lieutenant, the judge wrote, “Forend claims that Martell … exceeded his authority in (1) asking a police officer to move his car so that an ambulance could leave the scene of an automobile accident on January 8, 2008, and (2) as the first firefighter to arrive at the scene of a fully engulfed structural fire, in ordering the first engine to ‘lay the hose’ on March 7, 2008.”
The judge concludes, “The defendants’ [Chief Forend and the town of Oak Bluffs] argument that Martell’s position as a fire investigator restricts his ability to aid in fighting a fire is ludicrous. These incidents do not adequately support a conclusion that Martell was insubordinate and thus terminated for just cause.”
As to the charge by the town and the chief of misappropriation of funds — a $100 expense for business cards for Mr. Martell — the judge held, “Not only have the defendants failed to establish an intentional misuse of funds, but they have also failed to establish how this mistake is a valid basis for termination.”
The judge proposes a more substantial basis for the chief’s decision to dismiss Mr. Martell. “Clearly,” she writes, “the town’s July 1, 2007 decision to select Forend as chief played heavily in the decision to terminate Martell, and the personalities of the parties was a controlling factor in the town’s decision to affirm Martell’s termination.
“This court further finds that the actions of the chief were arbitrary, in that they were wholly unrelated to the public function,” the judge summed it up.
Town administrator Michael Dutton said he will seek the advice of town counsel before deciding whether to appeal the ruling. He declined to estimate the amounts to which Mr. Martell might be entitled.