Intense Exchange Over Fire Chief Search At Select Board Meeting

David Creed •

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The town’s search for the next fire chief has sparked plenty of debate, and it led to more fiery comments from both sides at Wednesday’s Select Board meeting.

Nantucket Fire Prevention Officer Joe Townsend spoke during the public comment session of the meeting, blasting the lack of transparency, fairness, and professionalism he believes took place during the town’s search for a new fire chief.

“Crazy, unsafe, disrespectful, sneaky, sad, a failure of government, angry, disappointed, and detrimental are all words found in the previously mentioned frustration and failure of this hiring process,” Townsend said.

Townsend alleged that Neil Paterson told Deputy Fire Chief Sean Mitchell and two town employees they were in for a “rude awakening real soon.”

Paterson is a retired firefighter who is also a member of the search committee. He vehemently denied ever saying that during his public comment, calling it hearsay. He said public safety is his top priority, alluding to his 20 years of service as a call firefighter for the NFD, his role as President of the Fireman’s Association, and 10 years on the building committee that fought for the building of the new fire station on Fairgrounds Road.

“I have nothing but respect for the Nantucket Fire Department and their actions at the Veranda House Fire. I was there also,” he said. ”The hiring process was laid out for a professional consultant in association with other neutral, third-party experts, all of whom have decades of experience as a fire chief and the recruiting of public safety professionals.”

Paterson said he encouraged “an internal candidate” that has been revealed to be Mitchell in recent weeks to apply for this position, with the mutual understanding he may not make it through the process. He said Mitchell told him he would work with whoever was hired. Paterson said they received 18 applicants, with eight including Mitchell moving on to the second round before the search was cut to a pool of three candidates that did not include Mitchell.

“All the applicants are capable firefighters who can step in in emergency,” he said. “It is important to hire the most qualified candidate. If we hadn’t had such qualified candidates, the outcome might be very different. It is unfortunate how the social media campaign is characterizing the hiring process and distorting the facts.”

“I have no horse in this race. I have retired from the fire department. Twenty-years seems like nothing. I am simply doing my due-diligence as a member of this community, which I care very much about.”

Townsend pleaded with the Board to give the fire department a greater say in the search. He spoke about the challenges they face on a day-to-day basis and the repercussions of being a firefighter that will last for years to come.

“Some of us have cancer. Some of us have job-related ailments that require doctor visits. Some of us have PTSD due to calls we have responded to that will be with us for the rest of our lives,” Townsend said. “Mr. Paterson whatever rude awakening you have in store for us, I’m sure we can handle it. These statements should overthrow any decision Mr. Paterson was involved in with the hiring committee.”

Townsend went on to thank the community on behalf of the entire department for their support following the Veranda House Fire, but was disappointed board members were nowhere to be found.

“Thank you to the Town Manager (Libby Gibson) for stopping by to wish us well and thank us for our service,” Townsend said. “Thank you to the business owners and restaurants. People dropped off cards, baked goods, dinners, and stopped us on the streets to say good job. Even the First Lady of the United States stopped by to recognize the work we had done. But do you know who didn’t stop by? Not one member of the Select Board.”

“We are understaffed, underpaid, and under-equipped. We go years with no offers or offers of zero during town negotiations. We are aware the Select Board hasn’t cared or been concerned with anything we do, culminating to this moment.”

Townsend pointed to over 850 signatures on an online campaign supporting Mitchell’s candidacy for the position and countless letters to the editor from the island community. He told the board to “listen to the people who put them in this position” and requested they disapprove the recommended hire of Michael Cranson as the new fire chief and deny the contract that would hire Martin Greene as an interim fire chief into the middle of October.

“You have 15 days according to Article 3, Section 3.4 of the town charter to disapprove the recommended hire. We ask that you start the process over, professionally, and with a qualified panel including a member of our union. Don’t ask for our input on a decision that will impact us for years to come. Let us be part of that decision.”

Retired Nantucket Police Officer Steve Tornovish spoke briefly in support of the Nantucket Fire Union and its members, telling the board to take a mulligan on this decision.

“Guys, this is one you need a mulligan on. You have a highly qualified candidate, right here who has the respect of not only the men and women who serve with him in the building adjacent, but this entire community,” Tornovish said. “The support has been overwhelming. To ignore him as a candidate is a travesty.”

Tornovish implored the members of the board to take time to speak to various people independently who will serve underneath this new fire chief and find out why they are so compelled to take the actions that they have taken to support Mitchell in recent weeks.

“This is too important to mess up,” he said. “The next great thing, we are always looking for it, and it doesn’t always work out. We have a proven commodity right here. Please, for the sake of this advice, take my advice.”

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