State ethics commission cites Oak Bluffs fire chief for conflict of interest

The ethics commission said there is a strong family tradition in which many members of the same family often work together in fire departments.

File photo by Ralph Stewart

The state ethics commission has determined that Oak Bluffs Fire Chief John Rose violated the conflict of interest law when he hired four members of his immediate family between 2009 and 2013 without making the appropriate notifications, but stopped short of assessing any penalties, noting the tradition of family membership in police and fire departments.

“Your participation as ambulance chief and fire chief in the hiring and supervision of your immediate family members as ambulance department and fire-EMS department employees created a conflict of interest between your public duties and your private family relationships,” executive director Karen Norber wrote in a letter dated March 16 addressed to Chief Rose and town labor counsel Jack Collins.

While the commission could have fined Chief Rose for each violation, it opted instead to address the matter in a public education letter.

“The Commission has determined that the public interest would be better served by publicly discussing the facts revealed by the preliminary inquiry,” Ms. Norber said. “The Commission expects that by resolving the matter through a public education letter, you and other public employees in similar positions and circumstances will have a clearer understanding of, and ability to comply with, the conflict of interest law.”
“There were procedural things that I could have done better, but under the circumstances that I was in, they understood,” Chief Rose told The Times. “I wasn’t really worried about this. I try to be as honest as I possibly can. When they started the investigation I was forthcoming with everything they asked for, because I didn’t have anything to hide.”

Chief Rose said he was told the investigation started around the time the fire chief position became available in the summer of 2013.

Lack of clarity on the law in town hall was also cited in the commission’s ruling. “The Chair of the Board of Selectmen signed your determination request in July 2011, but did so without first bringing the matter to the full board for consideration and approval,” the report said.

“I don’t want to make excuses, but that was a time when the town was in disarray,” Chief Rose said. “We were between town managers, and Kathy was practically running the town, so she had her hands full.”

Selectman Kathy Burton, then chairman, told The Times, “I’m pretty big on following procedure. If I’d known it was a mistake, I would have fixed it right away.”

The letter states that Chief Rose came into full compliance in 2013, when the full board of selectmen signed off on his written disclosure regarding his involvement in the hiring and supervision of his daughter, Amanda Rose, sisters Trulayna Rose and Krystle Rose, and brother Manuel Rose. The selectmen qualified their decision, saying Chief Rose could not take part in promotion or disciplinary procedures of his immediate family members. The ethics commission reinforced the board’s decision, stating, “The law presumes that you cannot be fair and objective in hiring and supervisory decisions regarding members of your family and, therefore, prohibits you from doing so.”

The nepotism issue was previously addressed in a January 2014 selectmen’s meeting, when town administrator Robert Whritenour stated that the town took extra steps to mitigate possible conflict of interest issues in filling the assistant fire chief and deputy fire chief positions. “We had to create an alternate process because one of the candidates was a family member of Chief Rose,” he said. “We’re very aware of the number of Roses in the department. On the one hand it’s an admirable trait to have a family that’s devoted to public service and that do it very well. But it also presents potential problems and pitfalls. We developed a system that works to evaluate candidates on professional merit without blackballing an entire family from public service. It’s not unusual for a small town like Oak Bluffs to have to have potential nepotism issues in town government. In our case, being an isolated Island community exacerbates the problem.”

In its final ruling, the ethics commission concurred with Mr. Whritenour. “We note that within certain areas of public service, such as fire and police departments, there is a strong family tradition in which many members of the same family pursue the same type of employment and frequently work together,” the commission letter said.

“Anywhere you go, there’s generation after generation of firefighters in one family,” Chief Rose said. “It’s always been that way.”

Chief Rose said that as a result of the investigation, he and Ms. Norber, Mr. Whritenour, and Mr. Collins have developed procedures to follow moving forward.

“Now we have a clearer path of how to deal with certain issues when they arise within the department, and we all feel a lot more comfortable now that we have that guidance,” Chief Rose said. “At the end of the day, we want to do it right. I want to be transparent. The most important thing is serving the department and the people of this town.”