The decision to have a strong or weak fire chief will be in the hands of Oak Bluffs voters next month at the town’s special town meeting.
At a meeting Tuesday night, the Oak Bluffs select board approved its 22-article special town meeting warrant. The special town meeting is scheduled for 7 pm, Tuesday, Nov. 9, at the Oak Bluffs School. The board voted 3-0. Board members Brian Packish and Gail Barmakian were not present at the meeting.
Discussion focused on what powers the town should give its fire chief. In Massachusetts, there are two types of fire chiefs: strong chiefs and weak chiefs.
The difference has to do with the mechanism available to local officials to remove a chief, and hiring and firing powers. The position as it stands is a “strong chief,” under Massachusetts law, gives the fire chief hiring and firing authority, and complete control over discipline. If changed to a weak chief, those powers would fall to the select board.
At the annual town meeting in May, an article addressing the strong and weak chief question was removed from the town warrant following the hire of Nelson Wirtz as the town’s new fire chief.
Select board member Ryan Ruley, who had suggested the article earlier this year, had it removed at town meeting due to the chief signing a contract that established him as a strong chief.
The decision of what powers to give the chief come in the wake of former Fire Chief John Rose’s sexual harassment scandal, and what appears to be a still ongoing FBI probe into ambulance billing irregularities. It also comes after the town and Chief Rose skirmished with a chapter of the International Association of Fire Fighters representing Oak Bluffs firefighters.
Wirtz voiced opposition to the change. If approved, the change would not affect Wirtz’s status as a strong chief, due to his contract.
“While it does not affect me, it certainly affects how this department is going to run in the future after I leave,” Wirtz said. “I think having a weak chief kind of cuts the legs off of the chief’s ability to lead the department, to create policy, to do the budgets, hiring, and firing.”
He said the board could have difficulty attracting a good candidate for the department in the future if the town moves to a weak chief.
Board member Jason Balboni said he understood the trend across the state was toward weak chiefs.
Ruley said he originally had strong feelings about making the change to a weak chief, but was comfortable with hiring Wirtz as a strong chief.
“I think the ultimate thing is to protect the town and make sure we work in a cohesive unit,” Ruley said. “That there’s check and balances mostly so we don’t end up in a situation where unfortunately if someone got into that seat and made poor decisions at the end of the day and they were to leave that seat, the town manager, the townspeople, and certainly the select board is responsible.”
Oak Bluff voters established a strong fire chief in 1996. Town administrator Deb Potter said budgetary laws and personnel laws have significantly changed in the past 20 years. “It’s not about diminishing roles, it’s about making everything much more integrative,” Potter said.
The town approved a strong police chief in 2002, but Ruley said unlike the strong fire chief, the board is technically the town’s police commissioners, and is actually the ultimate approving authority for hires, fires, and appointments in the police department.
Balboni said he understood both sides of the argument, but felt leaving it to the voters was for the best.
Other articles include a home-rule petition to ban moped rentals, $35,000 for harbor maintenance, $120,000 for a harbor jetty reconstruction project, approval for affordable housing proposals in the Southern Woodlands area of town, approval to create a 4.5-acre lot for a military veteran housing project, a petition to the state legislature to make a land swap with the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank for the “doughnut hole” property, and to recognize June 19 as Juneteenth.
Voters will also get to decide on a petitioned article that requests the select board’s decision to change diagonal parking to parallel parking on Circuit Avenue per the town’s streetscape design instead be decided by voters at the annual town meeting next year.
Other articles include adopting Island-wide goals in reducing fossil fuel usage, $100,000 for new computer equipment and relocation expenses, $250,000 for an extra Other Post Employment Benefits (OPEB) payment, and an article for $150,000 for two student residential placements.
An article for $5,651 for additional funding for the Vineyard Health Care Access Program was removed, since it was submitted after the deadline for budget requests. Another article for $100,000 to offset year-end shortfalls in the self-insurance workers comp account was removed.
The board moved three articles to next year’s annual town meeting: an article to amend personnel bylaws for vacation time, an article to use $8,000 to fund the town’s share of a stormtide pathways grant, and an article to allow for an associate member on the planning board.
In other business, the board appointed recently retired Police Lt. Timothy Williamson as a special police officer for the town.
Police Chief Erik Blake said this is common for police departments, to keep veterans as part of the force for consultation and wisdom.