Meeting behind closed doors over a period of months beginning last summer, the Oak Bluffs selectmen were deeply torn over whether to fire John Rose for inappropriate behavior and lying about it, executive session minutes released this week show.

Mr. Rose has been the fire chief since 2013 and prior to that had worked in the town ambulance department for a number of years, including as a captain.

He and the selectmen have been under intense scrutiny in recent weeks at both the federal and local level, with an ongoing FBI inquiry into billing practices by the town ambulance and the revelation of sexual harassment claims against Mr. Rose brought by a former employee.

The claims were settled out of court in September with a substantial payment to the former employee and no admission of wrongdoing by the town.

On Tuesday night selectmen voted to release five separate sets of minutes from executive sessions, four of which centered on Chief Rose. 

The minutes reveal a prolonged, sometimes tense back and forth between the chief and among the five selectmen over his workplace conduct and professionalism. And they show a fraught board, hesitant and uncertain over whether to fire the chief in light of sexual harassment allegations and his subsequent lying about them.

On more than one occasion, selectmen Greg Coogan and Mike Santoro came to the defense of the embattled fire chief, downplaying the seriousness of his admitted misconduct, minutes show. Selectman Brian Packish wanted to fire Mr. Rose outright. Selectman Jason Balboni indicated he was troubled and feeling betrayed since he had come to the defense of the fire chief, but wanting more information. Selectman Gail Barmakian was also troubled, but reluctant to fire the chief. Town administrator Robert Whritenour also participated in the discussions, at one point questioning the viability of allowing the fire chief to stay on the job given the damaging information about his conduct.

In the end, rather than firing Chief Rose, selectmen asked Mr. Whritenour to craft a five-point “performance action plan” in response to their concerns with his job performance. The selectmen and Mr. Rose agreed to the plan in October, but it was not made public until the release of the minutes Tuesday.

The five-point plan included a 21-day suspension for the chief, served over separate weeks in the past three months.

The heavily-redacted executive session meeting minutes are for meetings held in June, July and September. They include no details about the $97,575 settlement reached between former fire department office administrator Cynthia Hatt and the town. The agreement was signed Sept. 10. Minutes from that meeting have not been released.

Ms. Hatt filed a sexual harassment complaint against Chief Rose with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) in May 2019, after she had resigned from her job. 

Behind closed doors there was discussion about Mr. Rose and Ms. Hatt. Meeting minutes show that Mr. Rose at first did not tell his superiors the truth about his relationship with the administrator, who was his subordinate.

On June 19, 2019, the board met with Chief Rose in executive session under the section of the state open meeting law that allows closed-door sessions to discuss the reputation, character or dismissal of an employee. According to the minutes, it was Chief Rose who asked for the meeting, wanting to address “negative rumors” circulating about the department. He admitted to the selectmen that he had made a mistake and lied to them about his relationship with Ms. Hatt. He also emphasized the strength of the department and said it was “doing well,” minutes show. 

According to the minutes, Mr. Packish and Mr. Whritenour questioned the chief’s reputation and ability to perform his job given the harassment allegations. Selectman Jason Balboni was incredulous that Mr. Rose had lied, minutes show. But Mr. Coogan defended the chief’s job performance, saying he was a great EMT, a hard worker and “working to be a good chief.” 

The board took no further action at that meeting.

One week later, on June 25, the board met again in executive session to discuss and consider discipline against the chief in light of his relationship with a subordinate. The sweeping discussion offers a rare glimpse into the dynamics of handling of sexual harassment allegations in the shadow of the #metoo movement. Tensions eventually reached a climax when Mr. Packish made a motion to fire Mr. Rose. Other selectmen vacillated.

Mr. Santoro said prior discussions about Mr. Rose, including references to Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein, were not appropriate considering the allegations, minutes show.

“John is not guilty of rape. They lied about an inappropriate relationship. It is a he-said, she-said situation. He did not admit to anything else,” Mr. Santoro said, according to the minutes.

Selectman Gail Barmakian argued that Mr. Rose’s actions do affect his reputation and character.

“This was an inappropriate relationship between consenting adults, it is not against a bylaw, but it is inappropriate, unwise and not good judgment,” she said. 

After further discussion about the severity of the allegations against Mr. Rose, Mr. Packish requested a motion to dismiss the chief so that he could “vote yes,” citing an intolerance for lying and saying that as a result he had lost confidence in the chief. But Mr. Coogan felt firing the chief was an inappropriate step, instead suggesting a lighter form of discipline and underscoring the difficulties of working and living in a small town.

“Some form of discipline is necessary, but [Mr. Coogan] is not in favor of firing him,” the minutes read. “It needs to be made clear that he made a mistake and the town is paying for it. [Mr. Rose] 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 decided that he is a worthwhile human being.”

Selectman Coogan then moved that Chief Rose not be dismissed. The motion was seconded by Mr. Santoro. Selectman Jason Balboni said he felt he didn’t have enough information to make a decision. The motion was withdrawn, and replaced with a second motion saying that since the chief would not be fired that night, the board would move to a hearing on the matter. The motion was adopted unanimously.

Three months later, on Sept. 24, selectmen reconvened in executive session to discuss disciplinary action against Mr. Rose. Mr. Whritenour suggested a 30-day suspension, for having an inappropriate relationship with a direct reporting member of the staff, as well as lying about it. Chief Rose felt the punishment was too severe.

“Chief Rose acknowledged his lapse in judgment but said that he had 22 years of service with the town without any disciplinary problems and suggested that 30 days seemed harsh,” the minutes read. “A discussion then ensued concerning the seriousness of the charges and the excellent professional reputation the chief maintains.”

Selectmen decided to suspend the chief for 21 days, with the suspension served over a period of three months. The vote was 4-1, with Ms. Barmakian voting no.

The suspension, it appears, ended last week. As of Monday, Chief Rose was back on the job.