Updated Jan. 15
Tuesday night, Oak Bluffs selectmen confirmed that Fire Chief John Rose was suspended without pay for 21 days after having “engaged in a personal relationship with a directly reporting subordinate and not being truthful about that when asked.”
At a widely anticipated meeting that drew dozens of people, the public got its first window into how the issue of Rose divided the board of selectmen, and had at least one board member convinced he should be fired.
Last week, the town confirmed it had reached a $97,500 settlement with Cynthia Hatt, a former fire department administrator who accused the chief of sexual harassment in a lawsuit and a Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) complaint. Both of those were dropped as part of the settlement.
In her MCAD complaint, Hatt accused Rose of “relentlessly sexually harassing her and creating a hostile work environment.” The complaint accuses Rose of making inappropriate comments about her appearance, Rose putting his locker in the women’s locker room, and the town turning a blind eye to the chief’s personal relationships, but investigating Hatt for her personal relationships.
Reading from a prepared statement, selectman chair Brian Packish informed the audience crowded into the Oak Bluffs library meeting room that in late October 2019, selectmen and Rose agreed to a performance action plan drafted by town administrator Robert Whritenour.
The plan was aimed at five specific areas of concern in the way the chief managed the fire and ambulance departments: personal relationships within the department, collective bargaining relationships, staffing issues, financial issues, and structural issues.
Rose’s suspension was served in one-week increments during the months of November, December, and January. Rose told The Times he was on “vacation” during one of the weeks he served. The action plan called for Rose to seek counseling services with the Employee Assistance Program. It also called for Rose’s removal from office for any future instances of inappropriate relationships with subordinates, or any future instances of untruthfulness with town officials during investigations.
While no fault or blame was assigned to Rose in what Packish stated was a “tumultuous relationship” with the new union in the ambulance department, Rose committed to attend training sessions on management, labor relations, and leadership. Rose agreed to “demonstrate affirmative initiative in implementing the collective bargaining agreement and attempting to develop teamwork to solve problems and accomplish tasks,” Packish said.
Concerning financial issues, Rose committed to conduct a full cost analysis of the ambulance service, and to prepare for negotiations with the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital regarding the cost of providing services and revenues collected. The Ambulance Reserve Fund has declined to “dangerously low levels,” according to the action plan.
Other staffing issues required Rose to implement a plan to increase fire department recruitment for full-time staff members. A lack of qualified full-time staff has caused an over-reliance on part-time, per diem shifts, and creates instability in the workforce, according to the action plan.
The final part of the plan listed hiring an EMS assistant chief/EMS coordinator. On recommendations from a consultant’s study, it was recommended the EMS assistant chief and coordinator position be created.
Per the action plan, Rose must submit progress reports concerning the outlined goals. He must submit a formal report to selectmen no less than every six months.
According to the action plan, if Rose failed to improve or meet the agreed-upon goals, he would be subject to “reassignment, demotion, or dismissal.”
The selectmen’s statement also addressed the ongoing federal investigation into the town’s fire department. Packish confirmed the existence of an investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s office in Boston, adding that the FBI has interviewed “a number of individuals” on the Island, several grand jury subpoenas have been issued, and the investigation concerns billing practices in the ambulance department. The town agreed to credit back a combined $37,535.07 in Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements it allegedly overcharged in reimbursements.
“As far as we know, the investigation concerns certain billing practices of the ambulance department. Specifically, a concern has been expressed that Medicare and Medicaid may have been overbilled for off-Island ambulance transports. This appears to be the focus of the investigation,” Packish read.
Packish went on to say no one has been charged, care from town EMS providers has not been compromised, there is no suggestion of “self-dealing or diversion of funds,” and the town is conducting an investigation of its own.
“We have determined that errors were made in billing Medicare and Medicaid for certain ambulance runs,” Packish said, adding that the town is working its private ambulance billing company, Comstar.
Executive session minutes reveal divide
After an executive session lasting more than two hours Tuesday, selectmen also agreed to release several sets of executive session minutes relating to Rose.
The first came from a June 19 executive session that Rose requested to talk about negative rumors regarding the fire department. Rose admitted to selectmen he made a mistake by lying to them concerning an “inappropriate relationship,” but said the department is doing “well and strong,” according to the minutes.
At the June meeting, Packish asked how the selectmen could “defend [Rose’s] reputation given the current social situation, how anyone could keep his job.”
The allegations against Rose and his admission of an inappropriate relationship come as politicians, business leaders, and Hollywood executives have been under the microscope of the #MeToo movement — with men like Harvey Weinstein, Al Franken, and Matt Lauer being forced out or fired as a result of allegations.
According to the minutes, selectman Michael Santoro said references to Weinstein and Bill Cosby were “a little out of line,” adding that the selectmen were not judging Rose, and that it was a “he said, she said” situation.
Selectman Greg Coogan defended the chief, saying he is a “great EMT, a hard worker, and working hard to be a good chief.”
Six days later at a June 25 executive session, selectmen discussed dismissing Rose from duty.
Citing his low tolerance for lying and difficulty believing anything a person says once they have lied to him, Packish said he no longer had confidence in the chief, and asked to have a vote to dismiss so that he could “vote yes.”
Coogan moved to not dismiss Rose, which was seconded by Santoro.
Selectman Jason Balboni, according to the minutes, said he was not comfortable with the amount of information to make a decision on Rose’s dismissal.
Santoro said Rose was only in front of the selectmen because he lied to them about an “inappropriate consensual relationship with a female employee,” and that it did not involve professional competence. Selectman Gail Barmakian disagreed, and felt professional competence was part of it, but that the challenge remaining was how to “restore the reputation of the town and Chief Rose.”
“The chief has always maintained an excellent private and professional reputation,” Barmakian said. “This was an inappropriate relationship between consenting adults, it is not against a bylaw, but it is inappropriate, unwise, and not good judgment.”
According to a complaint filed by Cynthia Hatt with the Massachuestts Commission Against Discrimination in May 2019, Hatt gave in to sexual advances from Rose due to her vulnerable physical and mental state. After the affair stopped, she was sexually harassed and retaliated against once she refused Rose’s sexual advances, according to her MCAD complaint.
Coogan said Rose made a mistake, and cited the difficulties of working and living in a small town, according to the minutes.
“John works hard, does a good job with the situation he has, the difficulty of finding the help he needs. Some form of discipline is necessary, but he is not in favor of firing him. It needs to be made clear that he made a mistake and the town is paying for it. He will be paying for it by sharing his duties. The town will move on, they need to understand that the board reviewed the case, decided the chief made a mistake, but that he is a worthwhile human being,” Coogan said. He added that an agreement could be worked out with the chief to serve a suspension in the fall.
Selectmen did not approve releasing minutes from the Sept. 10 executive session meeting, but at a Sept. 24 executive session, selectmen met with Rose to discuss a suspension. Whritenour and selectmen originally discussed having Rose serve a 30-day suspension. According to the executive session minutes, Rose acknowledged his lapse in judgment concerning the relationship with a direct subordinate, “but said he had 22 years of service to the town without any disciplinary problems, and suggested that 30 days seemed harsh.”
While it drew a large crowd, people slowly began to leave as the meeting that began at 4 pm with a two-hour executive session stretched on until 8 pm. During the public comment portion at the end of the meeting, several residents expressed concern about Rose. Rich Weiss, a member of the town’s finance committee and an EMT, questioned the board about its decision to suspend the chief.
Susan Desmarais read a statement asking to put together a committee to study the town’s sexual harassment reforms. Packish directed both to the selectmen’s prepared statement and the released executive session minutes.
Parks commissioner Amy Billings was blunt with her comment. “I hope that this board does something soon,” she said. “Because it’s getting pretty embarrassing to live in Oak Bluffs.”
- May 23: Cynthia Hatt filed a sexual harassment and retaliation complaint against Rose with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD).
- July 19: Hatt filed a complaint in Barnstable Superior Court saying she was denied comp time after she rejected sexual advances from Rose. The complaint was dismissed a week later.
- Sept. 10: Selectmen signed a settlement agreement during an executive session, agreeing to pay Hatt $97,500 through the town’s insurance agency. Both parties admitted no fault, and Hatt dropped her MCAD complaint.
- Sept. 24: Selectmen vote 4-1 in executive session to suspend Fire Chief John Rose for three weeks over three months without pay, due to having an “inappropriate relationship” with a subordinate and lying about it. Barmakian voted no.
- Sept. 24: During the open session, town administrator Robert Whritenour acknowledges the town overcharged the federal government $37,535.07 in Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements through its off-Island ambulance run billing company, Comstar.
- Late October 2019: Selectmen and Rose agree to a performance action plan aimed at addressing five areas of concern.
- Dec. 31: The Times confirms the FBI is investigating issues at the fire department.
- Jan. 9: The $97,500 settlement document between Hatt and the town is released.
- Jan. 14: Selectmen release several executive session minutes from 2019, confirm ambulance billing mistakes were made, and confirm the FBI investigation was looking into ambulance billing practices.
Updated to include timeline of events, information performance action plan, and information from MCAD complaint. — Ed.