11 sue Mass. town, allege conspiracy to replace volunteer FFs with paid staff

The 11 plaintiffs claim the town of Rockport's emergency service director position, investigation of Fire Chief James Doyle and upcoming audit of the fire department were all arranged illegally

Michael Cronin
Gloucester Daily Times, Mass.

ROCKPORT, Mass. — Eleven residents have filed suit against the town of Rockport and its selectmen in Essex Superior Court, claiming top town officials have engaged in a conspiracy to replace the volunteers of the Rockport Fire Department, and in particular Fire Chief James Doyle, with full-time staff.

The 11 plaintiffs, described in the complaint as "taxpayers of Rockport," are Glen MacLeod, William Brundage, Armand "Dan" Aparo, Craig Morrill, Kenneth Knowles, William Tobin, Brock Hale Currier, Janelle Favaloro, Patrick Keating, Kathy Milbury, and Barbara Stavropoulous. They are being represented by Liam O'Connell of Farrell Smith O'Connell. O'Connell has provided Doyle, his father-in-law, with legal counsel ever since the chief was put on administrative leave in November for what the town said were "personnel issues."

Eleven Rockport residents have sued the town, claiming illegal practices by town leaders as part of a conspiracy to replace volunteer firefighters with paid full-time staff.
Eleven Rockport residents have sued the town, claiming illegal practices by town leaders as part of a conspiracy to replace volunteer firefighters with paid full-time staff. (Photo/Rockport, MA Fire Department)

Selectmen plan to hold a public hearing to determine whether to keep Doyle on as fire chief on Thursday, Jan. 28, at 6 p.m.

The residents' lawsuit, filed Monday, Jan 25, has 12 counts attached. In summary, the plaintiffs are asking the court to rule the following as illegal with all outstanding debts procured by the town null in void; Town Administrator Mitch Vieira's contracted position; the emergency service director position; Dinamary Horvath's appointment to a "quasi-special council" investigation into Doyle; and an upcoming audit of the Rockport Fire Department.

"The Board of Selectmen has not yet had an opportunity to discuss the complaint or any official response to it," said Vieira in an email. "In my view, there are numerous factual inaccuracies in this complaint, and I expect that the town will vigorously dispute this lawsuit. I look forward to the inaccuracies being corrected through our legal responses."

Public safety leadership

The complaint claims Vieira's powers come "from a contract negotiated behind closed doors, which include authorities the Town Meeting never approved."

Vieira was promoted from assistant town administrator to town administrator in June 2019. His contract, negotiated by selectmen, named Vieira the town's public safety commissioner, making him responsible for "overseeing all public safety functions and ensuring the orderly ad efficient provisions of services of same."

The complaint argues this appointment was illegal. It cites state law that a Town Meeting vote is required to appoint as a "commission of public safety" or give selectmen the ability to appoint one. Rockport's by-laws do not state that selectmen have the power to appoint a "commission of public safety" or "public safety commissioner" but do give selectmen the right to chose "members of the town police department, fire engineers," and "director of emergency management." Such has been the case as early as April 2013, according to past bylaw editions available on the town's website.

As defined by state law, also cited in the complaint, "If a town so votes ... selectmen shall appoint a suitable person as chief of the police and fire departments who may be designated as commissioner of public safety. He shall have authority, subject to the approval of the selectmen, to appoint a deputy as chief of the police and one or more deputy chiefs of the fire department. He shall have all the authority of constables and police officers in towns and also the powers and duties of fire engineers..."

Rockport's emergency service director, according to the job's description, is responsible for the administration and supervision of the town's emergency services division. The division not only includes the Rockport Fire Department, but the town's forest fire, ambulance, animal control, shellfish constable and harbormaster departments. Assistant Police Chief Mark Schmink took on the role in June 2019.

In November, selectmen voted to temporarily suspend the emergency service director position until a complete audit of the Rockport Fire Department is completed. The plaintiffs are asking Essex Superior Court to suspend Schmink's annual stipend for serving as emergency service director as well.

Doyle investigation

The complaint goes on to allege that an investigation into Doyle's "personnel matters" was a ploy to get the him out of the job and replaced by Assistant Fire Chief Steven Abell Jr. as a full-time employee. Dinamary Horvath, wife of Rockport police Chief John Horvath and Schmink's boss at the Police Department, was one of the attorneys hired to investigate the matters. This, according to the complaint, caused a "known and obvious conflict" in the investigation. At the time of investigation, Dinamary Horvath served on the town's Government and Bylaw Committee. Therefore, the complaint claims, the town is in violation of its bylaws, which state the "Bylaw Committee shall consist of five members who shall hold no other town office," but at all relevant times, Dinamary Horvath was employed as purported "quasi-special counsel for the town.'"

Finally, in regards to the upcoming Fire Department audit, the complaint claims "the Town of Rockport can only pay debts "contracted for purposes which it may lawfully expend money ... the Town of Rockport cannot incur a liability for more that what the Town Meeting appropriated for each department."

Selectmen are looking to hire Municipal Resources Inc. to complete the audit. As of Tuesday evening, the firm has not been officially hired. The final cost for the audit has yet to be determined; it is being negotiated with MRI's contract.

Some Rockport firefighters are not happy the town is pursuing MRI, believing Vieira is biased toward it, having been in contact with the firm since November regarding "interim fire chief services." Vieira denies ever contacting MRI. Rather, the town's human resources director had inquired about interim services in case the selectmen decided to fire Doyle. MRI has stated it does not plan on suggesting any changes to Rockport Fire's staffing model.

Still, firefighters claim the audit is "distracting the town from the real issues we raised in November about the abysmal leadership of Director of Emergency Services (Mark) Schmink and Assistant Fire Chief ( Stephen Abell Jr.)," according to an open letter released to the public.


(c)2021 the Gloucester Daily Times (Gloucester, Mass.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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