Fired NH chief plans to fight for job back

Former Ogunquit Fire Chief Mark O'Brien will likely seek a public hearing before the Board of Selectmen, saying he "has nothing to hide"


By Donna Buttarazzi
Portsmouth Herald

OGUNQUIT, N.H. — Former Fire Chief Mark O'Brien says he will fight his firing by the town manager, and will likely seek a public hearing before the Board of Selectmen, saying in an interview Thursday he "has nothing to hide."

Town Manager Pat Finnigan confirmed O'Brien's employment was terminated Sept. 18, but would not provide further details, citing personnel privacy laws.

O'Brien said he was placed on paid administrative leave in late June. He says he was never given a reason and was not given a reason for his firing last week.

"There was never a smoking gun," he said. "There were little things and I feel that it wasn't grounds for firing. There was no disciplinary action prior to this. That's why I'm appealing."

He said his lawyer will file the appeal before Friday's deadline, and then the Board of Selectmen have 15 days to hold a hearing. These hearings are normally held in executive session, but O'Brien said he plans to ask for a public hearing and thinks he will have a roomful of supporters. He said he's had "literally hundreds of people" reach out to him in support.

"I think they'll have to hold it in a bigger venue, I can tell you that," he said.

Charles "Bunky" Waite, chairman of the Board of Selectmen, said his board will support the process and be as transparent as possible. Waite said he could not comment on personnel matters.

O'Brien, who had been fire chief for six years, had served for 37 years in the Ogunquit Fire Department.

He said while he doesn't know specifically why he was fired, he said it has nothing to do with the time he served as acting town manager following the resignation of embattled former town manager Tom Fortier.

Fortier, who resigned in February 2017 after being on paid administrative leave for several months, was charged with theft related to allegations that he took money on July 4, 2016, after charging for parking in a lot where parking is free after 4 p.m., and reportedly keeping the money instead of turning it over to the town.

In July, Fortier reached an agreement with prosecutors to have the theft charges against him dismissed in exchange for 100 hours of community service.

O'Brien said Thursday that the town attorney, Ann Freeman from the Bernstein Shur law firm, conducted an independent investigation prior to his termination, and he feels it was biased.

"She's looking out for the town, so I don't know how that's independent," he said.

Finnigan was hired as town manager last August.

O'Brien said Finnigan would not meet with him as fire chief, despite attempts he made to do so. He claims Finnigan empowered some firefighters to watch him and he alleged one even recorded him talking to his staff.

"I loved it. I've worked all my life there for this job," he said. "I changed my whole life and career plans, and I gave up my own business when I became chief."

O'Brien owned an excavating company for 25 years, which he says he sold 2½ years ago.

"I've got nothing to hide and I have support from business people, taxpayers, residents, there are a lot of people who have reached out to me," he said.

If selectmen deny his appeal, O'Brien says he will consider appealing the decision to Superior Court. It would not be the first time the town was sued by a former employee.

In February 2015, York County Superior Court ruled against the town in a suit brought by former public works director Jonathan Webber. Webber was fired by then-town manager Fortier, and the court concluded there were insufficient grounds to fire him, and that the town did not follow a defensible path with respect to procedural aspects of that termination. The town paid $200,000 to Webber as part of a $775,000 settlement with the town's insurance company paying the other $575,000.

Copyright 2018 Portsmouth Herald

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