The stewing over who will be the next Nantucket Fire Department chief remained at a boil this week, as supporters of current Deputy Chief Sean Mitchell ramped up their campaign, along with criticism of the town administration’s handling of the matter.
Town Manager Libby Gibson defended the search process in multiple venues, even as an online petition circulated urging her and the search committee to reconsider their decision to pass over Mitchell for the job in favor of candidates from off-island who were selected as finalists.
The personal nature of the ongoing debate, Gibson said, was unprecedented for the hiring of a department head.
“In my experience, this has never happened before,” Gibson told the Current.
Asked if the decision had been made to reconsider Mitchell’s candidacy, Gibson said “I don’t want to comment on that. I don’t want to make this personal. For me, this is not a personal decision, it’s a decision of hiring the most qualified fire chief for the town of Nantucket.”
In response to the situation, Gibson and the town’s paid consultant for the fire chief search, Jack Parow, released a memo outlining the evaluation process, along with Parow’s contract with the town, and a July 18th communication from Gibson to the Select Board about the hiring process.
Meanwhile, one member of the search committee, call firefighter Neil Paterson, announced he was resigning from his role with the Fire Department, citing the rhetoric and negativity around the selection process for the new chief.
The department’s current fire chief Steve Murphy, who is retiring in September, said he was not prepared to comment on the selection of his successor. At least not yet.
Mitchell, who earned a wave of community support for his leadership during the Veranda House fire - as he took command with Murphy sidelined and recovering from surgery - has since been endorsed by the fire union and numerous community members.
“I appreciate the overwhelming support my family and I have received from this community,” Mitchell said. “I can't imagine living anywhere else. While I am grateful for the support, I don’t want to overshadow the incredible work our firefighters did to save lives on July 9th. I'm proud to be associated with them.”
Despite that overwhelming support, there are currently two finalists for the fire chief job and Mitchell isn’t one of them.
The elimination of Mitchell’s candidacy for the job has led to an outpouring of questions and comments, exemplified by Johanna Townsend (the wife of Nantucket firefighter Joe Townsend) who spoke out during the Nantucket Community Association and the Nantucket Civic League’s summer forum on Monday.
“Do you think Sean Mitchell is qualified to be chief?” Townsend asked Libby Gibson at the forum. “That’s rhetorical because the answer is obviously yes. He is qualified, but here I am wondering why you think the man who is capable of keeping the father of my child, who fought the Veranda House fire, safe from a four or five alarm fire last week, why is he not fit to be chief of this department?”
The two finalists for the Nantucket job are believed to be Michael Cranson, the fire chief of the Portsmouth Fire Department in Rhode Island, and Chris Christopoulos, Jr. the fire chief and emergency management director for the city of Lebanon, New Hampshire. They are scheduled to arrive on the island later this month for additional interviews.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the summer forum was co-sponsored by the Nantucket Town Association and the Civic League. The forum was sponsored by the Nantucket Community Association and the Civic League.