Under pressure to clarify the status of fire chief John Rose following recent disclosures of FBI inquiry into ambulance billing practices and a settlement involving sexual harassment claims against him, the Oak Bluffs selectmen stood behind their embattled department head at a packed meeting Tuesday.

In a formal statement read following a lengthy executive session, selectman and board chairman Brian Packish announced that Chief Rose had recently agreed to serve a three-week suspension for personal relationships within the department, with the suspension carried out over three separate weeks in November, December and January. The statement also said Mr. Rose had been untruthful about the relationship, although no details were provided. The unpaid suspension was agreed on in October as part of a broader plan meant to address a list of grievances over the chief’s job performance, Mr. Packish said.

The public statement from the selectmen came amid a whirlwind of events that have begun to surface in recent weeks around the fire department, most of them still shrouded in secrecy. An inquiry by the FBI into ambulance billing practices has been confirmed, even though the scope of it is unknown. And on the heels of that news, last week selectmen released an agreement signed in September that paid $97,500 to a former administrator in the fire department to settle a claim of sexual harassment against the fire chief. 

Former administrator Cynthia Hatt filed a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination last May. In it, she alleged a disquieting pattern of harassment and retaliation by the fire chief.

Meeting room was packed with concerned citizens. — Mark Alan Lovewell

Although there is no indication the FBI inquiry and harassment allegations are related, the broader tangle of events have thrust the town and its fire department into the spotlight, with mounting questions and few answers.

On Tuesday, selectmen voted to release a series of executive session meeting minutes, showing that they spent much of the past year wrestling with the repercussions of the chief’s job performance and workplace behavior. Although they discussed firing Mr. Rose over the summer, selectmen ultimately decided in October to implement the performance action plan made public on Tuesday, detailing a litany of concerns regarding Mr. Rose’s behavior but praising his professional competence. 

As part of the settlement with Ms. Hatt, there was no admission of wrongdoing by either the town or Chief Rose.

“In late October 2019, the board and chief executed a performance action plan that was drafted by the town administrator and was aimed at addressing five different areas of concern in the way the chief has managed the fire and ambulance departments,” Mr. Packish read in part.

According to the statement, the five areas of concern included personal relationships within the department, collective bargaining relationships, staffing issues, financial issues and structural issues regarding the department’s command staff. The three-week suspension was in direct response to a personal relationship Mr. Rose had with a member of his department.

“The chief accepted a 21-day suspension for having engaged in a personal relationship with a directly reporting subordinate and not being truthful about the relationship when asked,” the statement said.

Mr. Rose has been fire chief since 2013. Prior to that he headed the town ambulance department for a number of years and was active as an EMT.

The town merged its fire and ambulance departments in 2013, following an external review that recommended the change.

Contacted by telephone last week, Chief Rose told the Gazette he was on vacation. In the statement read aloud Tuesday evening, selectmen confirmed that the chief had in fact been serving a suspension, and that he was back on the job as chief on Monday. 

According to the statement, the chief also agreed in October to attend training sessions on management and leadership, follow overtime procedures, increase department recruitment, and work on a variety of issues related to department finances and structure. A copy of the performance action plan shows that the chief will have to submit progress reports on those issues to town administrator Robert Whritenour as often as Mr. Whritenour requests, and a more formal report to the selectmen every six months.

“If the chief fails to improve or meet the mutually agreed upon goals as required from this plan, then he may be subject to reassignment, demotion or dismissal,” the plan states. 

The plan also specifies that the consequences of any future romantic relationship with a direct subordinate — or lying about it — would be severe.

“Any further instances of inappropriate relationships with subordinates in the workplace, or any future instances of untruthfulness with the town officials on substantive matters during official investigations shall be considered cause for removal from office pursuant to Mass. General Laws,” the plan reads.

Mr. Packish read the statement on Tuesday following a two-and-a-half hour executive session in the town library meeting room. The executive session included discussion about an unrelated property rights court case the town is involved in. It is unknown how much time the selectmen spent discussing the issues with the fire department.

The statement also included a reference to the FBI investigation into the town’s ambulance billing practices.

“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,” the statement said.

About 40 people attended the meeting, waiting in the library for the board to reconvene. Chief Rose was not present.

After reconvening in public and reading the statement, selectmen said they would have no further comment on the matter.

Selectmen said they have retained outside counsel in the ambulance billing matter and are fully cooperating with the investigation. They added that they are conducting their own investigation into the ambulance finances, and admitted that billing mistakes had been made. But they were steadfast in asserting that no one has been charged with wrongdoing, and said that there has been no suggestion of “self-dealing” or the diversion of any funds by any individual.

“Although billing mistakes were made, to date we have not found any evidence of intentional wrongdoing by any individual. If such evidence is found, prompt and appropriate disciplinary action will be taken,” the statement concluded.

Asked why the chief’s suspension was made public on Tuesday, when it was decided last fall, Mr. Packish said legal constraints had prevented the selectmen from making the details of the suspension and executive session meeting minutes public until now.

The meeting stretched on for four hours and included a litany of other business — including a 30-minute budget hearing.

A handful of residents who stayed until the end vented their frustration about the town’s handling of the situation with the fire chief. One person questioned the board about the decision to suspend the chief, and another read a statement urging selectmen to appoint a committee to study reforms in town policies on sexual harassment.

Others were even more blunt.

“I hope that this board does something soon, because it is getting pretty embarrassing to live in Oak Bluffs,” said Amy Billings, a lifelong resident and businesswoman who is active in town affairs.

The full text of the selectmen's statement appears here