Under a cloud of controversy and ill will, Nantucket’s new fire chief was officially hired on Wednesday as the Select Board voted 3-1 to approve a three-year contract with former Portsmouth, Rhode Island fire chief Michael Cranson.
The public meeting was marked by animosity and accusations by island firefighters and community members who blasted the Select Board and the town administration for a hiring process that ultimately passed over current Nantucket Fire Department Deputy Chief Sean Mitchell.
“It is an absolute slap in the face to a wonderful human and everybody else who works under him because they respect him, not because he has a position above them,” said former firefighter Mac Davis, referring to Mitchell, who was also in attendance.
Many in the crowd urged the members of the Select Board to reconsider their decision to hire Cranson – or at least postpone a vote on the contract. But they were not swayed. Chair Jason Bridges was joined by Matt Fee and Brooke Mohr in voting to endorse the three-year deal with Cranson. Dawn Hill Holdgate cast the only dissenting vote, while Melissa Murphy was not in attendance.
“I can’t,” Hill Holdgate said. “I can’t do it. It is not a ‘no.’ I want to put it off. I’m not ready. I am really concerned the new chief isn’t going to get the respect of the department and it is going to cause a lot of problems.”
Nearly every seat in the community room of the Nantucket Public Safety Facility was filled to watch the Select Board consider the three-year deal with Cranson, who emerged as the only finalist to replace outgoing Nantucket fire chief Steve Murphy.
And those in attendance gave the board an earful. At one point – when it appeared a vote would happen without any discussion – Nantucket firefighter Joe Townsend got out of his seat and started to walk out of the room while yelling “you guys are a joke.”
Townsend questioned Cranson’s qualifications for the job, and told the Select Board they simply weren’t listening to both the department, and the community at large, as they called for Mitchell to be named chief.
“The entire town is asking you to stop, listen, talk about this,” Townsend said. “You are bringing in somebody who has five years experience in command capacity. I saw his resume. Quite honestly, I am probably more qualified than he is and I only have ten years of experience as a firefighter. I don’t understand where the disconnect is. The entire town is asking you to reconsider this. There has to be some other agenda I am not aware of because you are just passing this along and rubber stamping it. Please, think about this. Take your time.”
Cranson, 50, has been in the fire service since he was a teenager, and retired as the fire chief of Portsmouth, Rhode Island, in May 2018 after 27 years with the department. While he said last month that he was prepared to step in and “calm things down,” many people in the audience said they had their doubts about whether he could make it work given the tainted situation.
Former Nantucket Police Department Detective Steve Tornovish took the mic to support Mitchell, while emphasizing that Cranson has been retired for four years and is “about to walk into an acrimonious situation.” Tornovish also made his own explosive comments about an interaction with current Nantucket Deputy Police Chief Charles Gibson, the husband of town manager Libby Gibson.
“This morning I received an unsolicited text message from Deputy Chief Gibson of the Nantucket Police Department,” Tornovish said. “It is my belief this text message was designed to be threatening in nature. This text, although poorly written, conveyed a message about my having commented on ‘something you know nothing about.’ Although not explicitly stated in the deputy chief’s text, I surmise that this unsettling communication was about my public opposition to the selection process for the fire chief position. In case anyone was wondering, I chose not to be intimidated. It is disturbing that someone in a position of such significant authority would take this overt action to try to deny me my first amendment rights.”
Davis, who joined NFD last June only to resign a year later, said his decision was due partly because he was taking too much time away from his family, but also because “the morale was really low” in the department.
“I just want you to be aware of what’s happening,” Davis said. “The morale is down, and you can have all the brand new equipment and shiny stuff in the world, but people are going to walk out of that shiny door, and then our loved ones are not going to be cared for...That guy right there (Mitchell) deserves to be where he should be.”
Town manager Libby Gibson read a prepared statement on the hiring process into the record in which she remarked on the heated rhetoric surrounding the fire chief search.
“Unfortunately, the divisive and mean-spirited tone that has dominated national political conversation in recent years has finally made it to the shores of Nantucket,” Gibson said. “It has overshadowed the value and importance of the hiring process and promoted a non-productive and misleading narrative. I’d like to believe Nantucket is better than this. It is imperative that we all work together amicably and cooperatively for the common good of our community. I am confident that we can move beyond the misinformation and once again engage in productive dialogue.”
The meeting swung back and forth from the topic of the fire chief search and Cranson’s contract, to more broader issues involving the Nantucket Fire Department, including the respect – or lack thereof – it receives from the town administration, staffing levels, equipment concerns, and compensation.
Ayesha Barber, the wife of Nantucket Fire Department Capt. Nate Barber, also spoke out during the meeting. She asked the room what are the lessons the island is learning after the Veranda House fire, and reiterated the concerns regarding staffing levels and equipment.
“I worry constantly about my husband and what happens if I become a widow because of understaffing,” Barber said. “What happens if one of my friends becomes a widow and our children don’t have fathers or mothers because we just don’t have housing for staff, money or whatever it is. I don’t mean this at you, I am just saying how can we learn from this and what can we do because it is very scary.”
Select Board member Matt Fee said he had tried to separate the online petitioin to have Mitchell named as fire chief, from what he knew about how the search process was conducted, as well as the broader topics raised by Barber and others.
“Libby can’t manage, and we can’t manage by Facebook likes, etc.” Fee said. “I think equating this to Sean Mitchell -who is a great guy - and equating this one as another, they are two separate things. In other hires that I have been involved in we say ‘oh we can get two people instead of one.’ We are getting two in this hire. Some of the scary things to me were the last comments from Ayesha and those are the things we need to come together as a community on with the new chief and current crew.”