Mass. fire chief breaks silence on controversy that nearly led to mass resignation

Rockport Fire Chief James Doyle claimed through legal council that after firefighters presented a list of demands to town leaders, he was ordered to resign within 24 hours or face termination


Michael Cronin
Gloucester Daily Times, Mass.

ROCKPORT, Mass. — Fire Chief James Doyle has retained legal counsel after being put on administrative leave shortly after Rockport Fire Department firefighters sent their letter of demands to selectmen and threatened to walk off the job earlier this month.

He is being represented by Farrell Smith O'Connell Aarsheim Aprans LLP, a law firm with offices in Gloucester; the firm's Liam O'Connell is Doyle's son-in-law. On Tuesday evening, the firm sent out a statement outlining Doyle's side of the ongoing conflict between town officials and the Rockport Fire Department's call firefighters.

Rockport Fire Chief James Doyle claimed in a statement through legal council that after firefighters presented a list of demands to town leaders, he was threatened with termination if he didn't resign in 24 hours.
Rockport Fire Chief James Doyle claimed in a statement through legal council that after firefighters presented a list of demands to town leaders, he was threatened with termination if he didn't resign in 24 hours. (Photo/Rockport Fire Department)

In a joint statement, Selectmen Ruth George and Don Campbell said the press release was "full of inaccuracies" and reiterated the chief has been put on administrative leave due to other matters involving the Fire Department, not in retaliation for the firefighters' letter to selectmen.

Selectman Paul Murphy said Tuesday night he had not read the statement and declined to comment on it until he had done so.

According to the law firm's statement, Doyle was put on administrative leave the day following firefighters' demand that Emergency Service Director Mark Schmink and Assistant Fire Chief Steven Abell Jr. be relieved of their departmental leadership duties.

"Town Administrator Mitch Vieira appeared at RFD's Central Station, where he placed Chief Doyle on immediate administrative leave; served Chief Doyle a 'No Trespass Order' (under the 'authority' of the Town Administrator) for all Town property; and told Chief Doyle that he had 24 hours to resign, in order to retire, or face termination," Farrell Smith O'Connell Aarsheim Aprans' statement says. "The Town placed Chief Doyle on Administrative Leave within hours of him exercising his freedom of speech."

The statement also directly disputes Selectwoman Sarah Wilkinson's claim, made at the selectmen's Nov. 17 meeting, that Doyle's administrative leave had nothing to do with the firefighters' letter.

Town officials told Doyle the administrative leave was "based on recommendations made by the Assistant Chief of Police/Director of Emergency Services," according to the law firm's statement. Other than that, the statement says the town has not provided any other information regarding its decision. Despite not resigning after 24 hours, there has been no word if the town has truly fired Doyle.

"Town Counsel has been in contact with Attorney O'Connell a number of times, including as late as Friday evening," George and Campbell said in their statement. "This press release is an attempt to draw attention away from personnel issues related to Chief Doyle which we are legally not allowed to elaborate on at this time. As stated at the last Selectman's Meeting, the Board of Selectman fully support the actions of the Town Administrator, HR Director Michelle Carroll, and Town Counsel."

According to Doyle's lawyers, the director of emergency services position created by town violates state law. Specifically, the law firm cites G.L. c. 48, § 42, which reads, "(A town's fire chief) shall have full and absolute authority in the administration of the department, shall make all rules and regulations for its operation, shall report to the selectmen from time to time as they may require, and shall annually report to the town the condition of the department with his recommendations thereon ..."

At the Nov. 17 meeting, some selectmen claimed the director of emergency services position was created to keep the Fire Department, harbormaster, forest fire and animal control departments and the town's ambulance response team in coordination with one another. Ultimately, selectmen voted to suspend that position until a full audit of the Fire Department is completed.

"This came as no surprise, because the position they created was in violation of Massachusetts Law, as a fire chief, and only a fire chief, can have full administrative and operational control of a fire department," reads the statement issued by Farrell Smith O'Connell Aarsheim Aprans.

The statement also claims the town is dusting up a year-old investigation involving Doyle and "personnel matters" as evidence to push out the long-time fire chief. O'Connell told the Gloucester Daily Times he was unable to comment further on the investigation, citing privacy issues with other parties involved in the incident.

Farrell Smith O'Connell Aarsheim Aprans' statement claims the investigation was not helmed by town counsel Darren Klien of KP Law, but attorney Dinamary Horvath, wife of Rockport police Chief John Horvath.

"Chief Doyle's leave is based on the recommendations made by an individual/position who had no legal business making them (and has since been suspended), and the Town's threatened termination is founded on an unnecessary external investigator's results (who has obvious conflicts of interest)."

Members of the Rockport Fire Department have alleged the town is trying to replace them with a full-time fire department staff helmed by Schmink. Selectmen have denied these claims and have spoken out in support keeping Rockport Fire Department all-volunteer.

O'Connell said his father-in-law has yet to make up his mind if he wants to pursue legal action against the town.

"After nearly half-a-century of waking up in the middle of night to help his neighbors, Chief Doyle has the endurance and desire to see this through." the law firm's statement concludes. "He will keep moving forward until there is transparency and accountability from the town, not just for him but for his fellow firefighters and townspeople."

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(c)2020 the Gloucester Daily Times (Gloucester, Mass.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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