Mass. fire chief refutes no-confidence claims

Fire Chief Thomas Rullo wrote a five-page letter refuting the claims made by the union following its no-confidence vote

By Sean F. Driscoll
The Cape Cod Times

MASHPEE, Mass. — The Mashpee fire chief has disputed the claims made by the town fire department's union challenging his leadership and communication skills, according to documents released by the town Wednesday that point to a deepening divide between rank-and-file members of the department, its leadership and the town manager.

Fire Chief Thomas Rullo wrote a five-page letter last month in response to a no-confidence vote held by the Mashpee Permanent Fire Fighters Association Local 2519 in November. The union didn't disclose the vote against the chief and his deputy, John Phelan, or the reasons behind it until March, when it sent a four-page letter to Rullo, Phelan and Town Manager Rodney Collins.

The union met with Collins in early March, after which there was an improvement in communication, said Michael Evaul, union president. But on May 18, Evaul informed Collins the situation was worse than before.

Two days later, Rullo responded in writing to the union. His May 20 letter was released to the Times on Wednesday following a public records request; it defends his management decisions and disputes claims of safety concerns for the town and firefighters.

The union's letter detailed complaints under five categories: safety, communication, leadership, selective enforcement of department guidelines and a failure to become familiar with Massachusetts collective-bargaining laws. Included in the safety concerns are numerous unresolved complaints about a fire engine with an unpredictable stalling problem, an open-door warning light that would go off unexpectedly, a faulty vehicle exhaust system and various repair issues.

Among the items Rullo addressed in his letter were the safety complaints, which he said were being worked on as they were identified. The problems often involved working with a third-party vendor, he said, which slowed progress.

"Any items the Fire Chief deemed to be true safety items were (addressed) as quickly as possible," Rullo wrote.

Evaul said he only received Rullo's response Monday afternoon, hours after the Times filed its public records request, and had not had time to fully examine it. He said, however, that he stood by the union's letter and had ample documentation to support its allegations.

Collins released a written statement Wednesday detailing his conversations with Evaul over the union's concerns. Collins also released details of a grievance the union filed Monday, the day before the Times story detailing the strife within the fire department was published, about members' abilities to accrue vacation time while out due to injuries sustained in the line of duty.

According to the grievance, Collins reneged on a memorandum of understanding to pay firefighters for vacation time earned while on leave. Collins acknowledged that there was a tentative written agreement, but in his written response to the grievance, Collins stated that Evaul had inferred the union "won" on the issue but did not specify in what venue firefighters obtained the vacation time benefit.

The union's contract with the town specifically states vacation time is earned while working, as do existing court cases, Collins said, so he asked Evaul for supporting documents to back up his claim.

"You appeared upset and said something to the effect, 'You don't take my word for it?' Ironically, I did take your word and continue to do so," Collins wrote. "I explained then, as I do now, my sole purpose in asking for the back-up was, in the event someone were to question my actions at some future time, the supporting documents were attached to our MOU."

Firefighter Christopher Shute, the union treasurer, told Collins that he could provide the documents, according to Collins' response. A May 31 meeting was scheduled to do so, but it never occurred because the grievance was filed. Collins later authorized the town attorney to file a prohibited practice complaint against the union, claiming that they were not bargaining in good faith.

Evaul said the grievance is not connected to the union's no-confidence vote and he questioned the timing of its release by Collins. Other grievances have been filed since the no-confidence vote and more are sure to come in the near future, he said.

"They are two totally separate issues," he said. "The timing, a thousand percent, has nothing to do with it."

Collins said the details of the grievance, however, illustrate that the communication difficulties alleged by the union are not unique to Rullo and Phelan.

"If communication is identified as the primary problem, where is the source of the problem?" he said.

Collins also released the results of an internal investigation in response to union claims that Rullo and Phelan had knowledge of illegal activity that occurred within the department. The investigation, conducted by Phelan, surrounded allegations that a firefighter, Ryan Higgins, illegally recorded a conversation in May 2015 that Evaul had at the fire department about a disciplinary hearing involving another firefighter. Higgins told Phelan he took an audio recording of the conversation because "the comments being made by Lt. Evaul struck a wrong (chord) with him and immoral for him to talk about another (firefighter) like that."

When Evaul found out Higgins had recorded his private conversation without his permission, which is illegal in Massachusetts, he filed a complaint with the Mashpee police. Higgins, whom Collins said is still employed with the department, admitted making the recording but did not realize it was illegal, according to the investigation.

Higgins was found to have violated two departmental regulations, the report says, but any punishment is not detailed in the report. Police Chief Scott Carline confirmed the investigation was suspended and charges were not filed against Higgins.

"What's important to understand is that there wasn't any suggestion at any point that there was rampant criminal activity throughout the Mashpee Fire Department," Collins said. "It was one incident involving one individual. It's not fair to suggest this was swept under the rug. It was anything but."

Both Collins and Evaul indicated Wednesday they were waiting for a sign that discussion could continue. Evaul said he was looking for "any action or inaction" from Collins or the department brass about the union's complaints; Collins wrote in his statement that the town is ready to respond to "legitimate concerns regarding safety or operational issues that require administrative review."

"The town is always ready to sit down and discuss any pending issue within a reasonable framework," Collins said. "We'll wait to hear from the bargaining unit."


(c)2016 Cape Cod Times, Hyannis, Mass.

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