Selectman's Email On Fire Chief Job May Violate Law

By: Tim Wood

Selectman Amanda Love, left, and Chairman of Selectmen Jeffrey Dykens. FILE PHOTO

CHATHAM – An email sent Monday by Selectman Amanda Love to her fellow board members appears to have violated the state Open Meeting Law and at least the spirit of the town charter.

Noting the upcoming retirement of Fire Chief Michael Ambriscoe, the email asks that the board discuss promoting Deputy Fire Chief Peter Connick to the chief's position.

Under the town's charter, the town manager is responsible for hiring department heads, including the fire chief, but the board of selectmen can veto the appointment by majority vote within 15 days.

“It really is (Town Manager Jill Goldsmith's) decision to hire and fire as town manager,” said Chairman of Selectmen Jeffrey Dykens.

According to the Attorney General's Office, even expressing an opinion on a matter within the board's jurisdiction to a quorum of members outside of the public meeting is a violation of the Open Meeting Law.

“It really does betray the Open Meeting Law,” Dykens said of the email.

Love, however, stated in a followup email to The Chronicle that she was stating facts as opposed to personal opinion.

Love's email, sent to her fellow members of the board of selectmen, Goldsmith and members of the press, requests that the chairman place a discussion item on a future board agenda about the in-house promotion of Deputy Fire Chief Peter Connick to chief. Connick, she wrote, “is an excellent example of a highly qualified, motivated employee and leader in the fire department who has worked hard to educate himself on every level of firefighting and lifesaving.” She also lauded Connick's “continued contribution to the firefighting service as an instructor over the past decades to hundreds of men and women looking to enter the EMS field.”

Promoting from within the department would save the cost of a search and provide a return to the town on its investment in Connick, she wrote, and would also open the deputy position to another internal candidate.

“We are incredibly fortunate to have a fire department staff...known by our citizens to be the best,” Love's email states. “Let's continue Chief Ambriscoe's successful form of leadership by showing his staff who much we support them by promoting from within.”

The state's Open Meeting Law prohibits deliberation among a quorum of members of a board outside of a legally posted public meeting, either in person or by email. The prohibition includes stating an opinion on issues within the board's jurisdiction.

The Attorney General's Open Meeting Law Guide states that “the expression of an opinion on matters within the body’s jurisdiction to a quorum of a public body is a deliberation, even if no other public body member responds.  For example, if a member of a public body sends an email to a quorum of a public body expressing her opinion on a matter that could come before that body, this communication violates the law even if none of the recipients responds.”

Chatham has not hired a chief from within the department since at least the 1960s, as far back as The Chronicle's records extend.

Love said in her email to The Chronicle that there has been a “serious retention and turnover problem of town employees” over the past five or six years, demonstrated most recently by the resignation of Building Commissioner Justin Post (see story, page 3). “This department has had no less than 13 employees leave the employment of the town, which in turn costs the local taxpayers unnecessary expense,” she wrote.

Her initial email was intended to present information about the upcoming retirement of Ambriscoe and the “important appointment of fire chief.”

Ambriscoe is set to retire at the end of March, when he turns 65, the mandatory retirement age for public safety personnel in Massachusetts. He came to Chatham from Hamden, Conn. in November 2004.

Connick began working for the Chatham Fire Department in January 1979. He was promoted to deputy fire chief in November 2011. He said Tuesday he had not seen Love's email.

As of this week the fire chief position has not been advertised. Dykens said he did not know how Goldsmith planned to approach the vacancy, whether she will go outside the department or recruit from within.

“I'm sure all the viable internal candidates will be considered,” he said.

Attempt to contact Goldsmith for this story were unsuccessful.