An FBI investigation. Settlement of a sexual harassment complaint against the fire chief. And town administrator Robert Whritenour slipping up at a public meeting and saying the fire chief was suspended, and the finance committee then trying to whitewash the public record by keeping his comments out of the meeting minutes.
Oak Bluffs town government, in general, and the Oak Bluffs Fire Department, in particular, are a mess.
To say it’s been a difficult start to 2020 for the town would be an understatement. On Tuesday, when selectmen had an opportunity to douse the community unrest, they did more to fan the flames.
The public now knows that town leaders, behind closed doors, had widely differing opinions on Chief John Rose. The board discussed firing him, but instead suspended the chief and came up with an action plan. They also agreed to settle a sexual harassment claim against him by Cynthia Hatt, the former office administrator of the Oak Bluffs Fire Department.
Anyone who thinks this is all new is kidding themselves.
Issues have been going on for more than three years at the fire department, and during that time, town leaders have either ignored or excused what Rose finally admitted to the board. According to executive session minutes, Rose told them he lied to them previously, and he had been engaged in an “inappropriate relationship” with a subordinate.
Hatt’s lawsuit and her complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination are clear. She acknowledges a once consensual relationship that ended. She claims the chief’s sexual advances didn’t stop, and that she was retaliated against.
Who has the credibility here? The chief admits he lied. (By the way, he lied again, telling The Times last week that he was on vacation when he was actually serving a suspension.) Hatt’s story has not changed.
None of what’s bubbled to the surface in recent days should come as a surprise to anyone in leadership of the town. At the time they approved a union in 2017, firefighter/EMTs described a toxic work environment at the Oak Bluffs fire station. Employees described a department in disarray, where discipline isn’t handled fairly, and those who speak up are punished.
Instead of pushing for a deeper internal review, Whritenour doubled down on his support of the chief, and wagged his finger in contempt at The Times, and those town employees who spoke with the newspaper. In an unprecedented move, he provided the work history of some of the employees who were speaking out about Rose, in retaliation for them talking about the internal problems at the department.
Why are selectmen not asking Whritenour why he was so over-the-top in his support of the chief at that time? Why are they not holding him accountable for his attempts to silence those who would blow the whistle on what was going on inside the department? Why are they not asking him why he didn’t nip this in the bud, and take appropriate action at the outset? Why are they not asking why Whritenour believed the man in authority, instead of the woman in a vulnerable position?
Here we are three years later, and the situation has deteriorated to a point of embarrassing dysfunction. The town agreed to a settlement that will have its insurance provider paying a former office administrator $97,500 in exchange for Hatt dropping her lawsuit and complaint with the MCAD. Town leaders will spin it by saying that it’s not taxpayer money footing the bill because it’s coming from the town’s insurance company. And they’ll point out that there is no admission of guilt by the chief or the town.
But we all know that when there’s a claim, an insurance company raises its rates. And there is absolutely no doubt that the taxpayers will foot that bill.
As for the veracity of Hatt’s claims, well, whom do we trust? The people who said there was no inappropriate relationship, and now say that was a lie? Or the woman whose story has never changed, and now has been paid off to stop talking about it?
Selectmen as a group couldn’t be handling this situation any worse than they are or have. They are responsible for this issue remaining on the front burner, and the drip, drip, drip of information.
During times of crisis, leaders can either rise up and provide confidence that the issues are being handled appropriately, or they can make you feel helpless, like a ferry with mechanical problems floundering in Vineyard Sound.
The public deserves a town administrator and a fire department it can trust.