Selectmen approve fire department restructure

Search for a new fire chief gets 14 applicants.

Oak Bluffs selectmen voted to restructure duties in the fire department.

After a year without a permanent fire chief, Oak Bluffs selectmen agreed to restructure duties in town’s fire department at a meeting Tuesday night.

Selectmen approved an organization chart compiled by Erik Blake, public safety director and police chief, and civilian technical advisor John Schilling. 

The new organization will feature a fire chief who will oversee a deputy fire chief, an ambulance coordinator, and an administrator. Presently, the department is made up of a fire chief, deputy chief, and assistant chief, followed by captains and lieutenants. On the EMS side, there are a first and second lieutenant.

The major change in the restructuring would be a full-time deputy fire chief. The proposed fire deputy chief position is currently handled by three different fire department members. The deputy chief would be responsible for department training, fire inspections, and code enforcement. The position would also provide a potential path for a future fire chief.

“In looking at the present structure and the gaps and the financing, the picture came together fairly quickly; there’s a lot of resources here, but they need to be brought together in a cohesive flow,” Schilling said. 

Blake and Schilling were given the reins to shape the fire department following a federal probe into the fire department’s billing practices with its off-Island ambulance service and the departure of former Fire Chief John Rose. Rose, whose tenure divided the board of selectmen, was the subject of an MCAD complaint that alleged he mistreated former fire department office administrator Cynthia Hatt by “relentlessly sexually harassing her and creating a hostile work environment.” 

The town settled with Hatt, paying her a $97,500 lump sum through the town’s insurance. Rose got his own payout. He received 50 percent, $65,882.70, of his annual salary as part of a severance deal with the town. He also received full retirement benefits. 

Meanwhile, the town received 14 applications for the position of fire chief after closing out a monthlong recruitment period on Friday.

Selectmen will work with a preliminary panel made up of Schilling, Blake, Edgartown Fire Chief Alex Schaeffer, fire department Deputy Chief Manny Rose, firefighters James Maseda, Will deBettencourt, and John O’Donnell, EMS member Lt. Matthew Bradley, and town administrator Robert Whritenour.

In other business, selectmen unanimously approved Gail Barmakian as their representative to the newly formed Coalition to Create the Martha’s Vineyard Housing Bank. Barmakian will act as a liaison between the coalition and the board.

The coalition wants to create a housing bank modeled after the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank, with funding from a transfer fee tax on real estate transactions. The housing bank will not propose use of existing revenues from towns, such as the short-term rental tax or Community Preservation Act funds.

The Housing Bank would not build housing, but instead would provide seed money for development projects.

This is the third attempt at a housing bank on Martha’s Vineyard. The first, in 2005, got agreement from all six Island towns and Island realtors, but was shot down by the state legislature when the Massachusetts Association of Realtors lobbied against it.

The second attempt came in 2019, following the expanded rooms excise tax on rentals such as Airbnb and VRBO. That proposal asked for 50 percent of the new revenue generated by the tax, but was swiftly dismissed by town selectmen before being defeated by each town at annual town meetings.

Selectmen unanimously reappointed Deborah Potter to another three-year term as town accountant.