Former Nantucket Fire Chief Weighs In On Controversy Over Hiring Process

Jason Graziadei •

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The search for Nantucket’s next fire chief and the decision to pass over current Deputy Chief Sean Mitchell during the hiring process has prompted hard feelings and disappointment within the island community. Look no further than last week’s Select Board meeting.

Both the fire chief search and the Nantucket Fire Department in general have been under a microscope since the Veranda House fire on July 9.

To gain better insight into the town’s search process and the relationship between NFD and the town administration, we reached out to the current and most recent Nantucket fire chiefs - Steve Murphy and Paul Rhude - for interviews.

While Murphy declined to comment on the ongoing fire chief search, Rhude had plenty to say - and some things to get off his chest regarding his time as Nantucket’s fire chief.

“It doesn’t sound like much has changed,” Rhude said of the controversy over the town’s reported decision to hire an off-island candidate over Deputy Chief Mitchell. “Meaning the town officials want 100 percent control over the fire department. When I was hired over there, I did my best to do my job and provide the best service possible. At some point, it became clear that there were some things I was going to be allowed to do, and some things I wasn’t going to be allowed to do.”

Rhude outlined a strained relationship with town manager Libby Gibson and others in town government that ultimately contributed to his decision to resign. Rhude stepped down as Nantucket fire chief in June 2017 after just two years on the job. At the time, he cited the strain on his family - who were located back on the Cape and traveling back and forth to see him - as well as the lack of housing on the island.

But Rhude told the Current last week that the primary issue that led to his departure was a dispute with the town administration over the fire department’s role in responding to marine emergencies and fires.

“My biggest problem was the marine issue,” Rhude said. “Despite state law and my responsibility, I wasn’t going to be allowed to fill that obligation and it was put in writing by the town manager that I wasn’t allowed to be responsible and not given resources to provide public safety anywhere on the water. I was told by the HR director that if I even said the word ‘water’ I would be disciplined.”

In the past, the Nantucket Fire Department had a much larger role in responding to marine emergencies, as it managed the town’s lifeguard program and owned equipment like jet skis for water patrol. But the town transitioned the lifeguards and other responsibilities to the Marine and Police departments over the years, a move that is still a sore spot for some in the department.

In May 2016, the situation came to a head after Rhude had his staff take out and clean the only inflatable boat the department owned. In e-mails Rhude shared with the Current, Gibson cited her previous conversations with him on the topic, the fire department’s “very negative history with boats,” the fact that it was not insured and not on the town’s equipment inventory, and told him “I do consider this an insubordinate action on your part.”

Following that dust-up, Rhude said it became clear the town was looking to part ways with him.

“Shortly later, I was told I had to find new housing,” Rhude said. His originally agreement with the town stipulated he could live in a municipal housing unit for three to five years. But “when this (the marine safety issue) started coming up, the HR director said they changed their mind and you have to find your own place to live. I left the island because I had no place to live. I didn’t make that public, but I was going to be forced out one way or another. Ultimately though, it was the housing. Having no place to live and the price of real estate, and from the e-mails from Libby, if I wasn’t going to be person she wanted to me to be, my career wasn’t going to be long there.”

Rhude left the island in 2017 and moved on to become the fire chief in Cotuit, before retiring last December to work in the private sector as a project engineer.

In response to Rhude’s comments, Gibson told the Current: “Mr. Rhude’s comments are not connected with the current fire chief search process and it is significant that he does not raise any issues regarding the process. It is customary town policy not to comment on personnel issues either current or prior. I can only say that Mr. Rhude’s recollections and the town’s are not the same. His departure from Town housing, which is not a direct personnel matter, came about after he declined to execute a new license agreement that at the time all employees in Town housing were requested to sign, for consistency reasons.”

For members of the Nantucket fire union, however, the situation that led to Rhude’s resignation resonates now as the town is on the verge of naming its new fire chief, who is believed to be Michael Cranson, the former chief of the Portsmouth (Rhode Island) Fire Department. To many of the members of Nantucket’s Local 2509 union, a new chief from off-island who is reliant upon housing from the town is a leader they believe will be put in a difficult position from day one.

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