HARVARD — “I’m not particularly ashamed and embarrassed of anything I’ve done,” Harvard Fire Chief Robert Mignard said late Monday afternoon. “I don’t know where things went astray.”
But astray things have gone.
A simple three-paragraph press release, issued by the Harvard Board of Selectmen the Friday before the July 4th weekend, was all that the selectmen’s office issued initially on the matter: The board is opting to part ways with its fire chief.
“After a long effort to reconcile mutually agreed upon goals and responsibilities of the office of the Fire Chief with the daily operations of the Fire Department, the Board of Selectmen has determined that they will not renew the contract with Chief Mignard,” the press release opens.
Mignard will serve out the balance of the calendar year under a six-month extension hammered out with conditions over the winter. Come Dec. 31, Mignard will have served exactly six years at the helm of the department’s 27-man volunteer firefighter roster — unless he finds other employment before then.
It also paves the way for a new start for the department, and the possible return of a member of the Warren family to retake the office.
Warren recuses himself
Selectmen Chairman Peter Warren secured a spot on the Board of Selectmen when he was elected to serve out the one year balance of an unexpired three-year-term on April 1, 2008. The following spring, Warren was elected for a fresh three-year term — becoming one of Mignard’s five co-bosses. Mignard replaced Warren as Harvard’s fire chief.
Warren retired as chief on Dec. 31, 2004, capping a 40-year firefighting career. Warren is still committed to the department, monitoring Fire and Police monitors from home and arriving on the scene of some incidents. Instead of manning a hose or organizing the response team, Warren now mans a camera on occasion as a bystander.
Mignard, then a Groton Fire Department captain, was hired to succeed Warren. A Seekonk native with 20 years of service under his belt, Mignard had served on the Groton force from 1984 to 2004.
Mignard beat Lincoln Fire Department Lt. John Whalen to secure the post in November 2004 from an original field of upwards of 30 candidates including, reportedly, Warren’s son, Harvard Fire Department Lt. Rob Warren — a 20-year veteran of the Harvard department. The next generation of Warrens aboard the Fire Department includes the selectman’s son and two grandchildren: Firefighter Justin Warren, who was newly appointed to the volunteer force in June and Firefighter Andrew Perry.
Mignard came fully credentialed, including college education in fire science and specialized training in several fields, including fire and arson investigation and instructor methodology, HazMat and EMT training. He holds certifications as a firefighter, fire officer, fire instructor and in basic trauma life support. He has worked as an EMT for a Lowell ambulance firm and as a field instructor for the Massachusetts Fire Academy. Prior to service in the Air Force and a career in the electronics field, Mignard was also a firefighter in Seekonk from 1971 to 1974.
When asked for comment about Mignard’s departure, Selectman Warren indicated that upon advice of the state Ethics Commission, he has recused himself from the entire process relating to Mignard’s contract review. The selectmen’s June 25 vote against renewing Mignard’s contract was still unanimous without Warren present, 4-0, according to Town Administrator Tim Bragan. Warren said and Bragan confirmed that Warren did not vote nor did he attend the June 22 and June 25 closed-door discussions that led to the vote.
As to the process to replace Mignard, the selectmen’s press release states: “Over the next six months the Selectmen will be actively, transparently and carefully examining all leadership models available to meet the needs of the membership of the Fire Department, the Selectmen and most importantly, the Town of Harvard.”
No selectman responded to a request for comment; Bragan did. The Harvard Hillside has made a public records request of the selectmen’s office to release Mignard’s contract copies and minutes of their closed-door meetings that led to their decision not to renew Mignard’s contract. Neither request had been fulfilled as of presstime.
Bragan said the portions of the minutes may not be ripe for release since the record contains both contract deliberations, which may be released to the public, and personnel matters that may be legally redacted from the minutes under the Open Meeting and Public Records laws.
“We’re trying to be very cognizant of what ramifications there can be not only for the chief but for the town as well,” Bragan said. “It’s not an easy decision to make.”
Conditioned employment extension?
“I’m not looking for the papers to be my defenders, nor am I looking for a forum to rant and rave or argue or rebut. I’d just like to speak to it,” Mignard said when asked for comment on Monday.
Under Chapter 48, Section 42 of Massachusetts General Law, Mignard is a so-called “strong chief,” which Mignard explained. “That’s key to me.” Reading from the law, Mignard said such a chief, “shall have full and absolute authority in the administration of the department.”
Removal “for cause” (meaning due to a chief’s breach, misfeasance or other inappropriate action) by the selectmen may occur after a hearing. However, in this case, the selectmen are not removing Mignard for cause; the board’s stated reason for not renewing his contract is a failed “effort to reconcile mutually agreed upon goals and responsibilities.”
The selectmen extended several management contracts last summer. Bragan, Police Chief Edward Denmark and DPW Superintendent. Richard Nota were given three-year contracts. Town Business Director Lorraine Leonard was granted a five-year contract.
Mignard received a one-year contract, from July 1, 2009 through June 30, 2010. But Mignard’s contract was subsequently extended in December by another six months until December 31, 2010. Mignard and Bragan differ as to whether the extension was conditioned on Mignard’s meeting new criteria placed before him over the winter.
In December, Mignard was asked to provide the selectmen with a list of personal and departmental goals and objectives and to provide supporting evidence as to why he should remain as chief — a foreboding sign, he felt.
“It wasn’t if, it was when,” Mignard said about sensing an effort to drive him out. Mignard said the goals he provided were not couched in terms of employment requirements.
Bragan disagrees, saying the selectmen specified as much in December. “The goals and objectives were given to him along with the extension; they just go together.”
When the selectmen began their deliberations on the matter, Mignard provided them with a two-page memo in December. He harkened back to his January 2005 start date, when he assumed control of the department from Warren.
“I inherited a department that had been conducting its affairs in the same manner without deviation for as long as anyone could remember. Training was in the doldrums, the department was divided as to how and where to proceed on just about anything and there was a great deal of friction all around,” Mignard wrote. “Communications were often tense and accusatory.”
Mignard provided the selectmen with a 12-point list of changes he’d enacted at the department. One change was an ordered slow down for drivers responding to incidents other than “true emergencies.” Mignard established a Standard Code of Conduct instead of the prior approach of firefighters setting department rules and regulations. The change provided a “clear explanation of what is acceptable behavior and the consequences of violations,” Mignard said.
But the first behavioral issue Mignard listed is stunning and stands alone as follows:
“I eliminated the consumption of beer and alcohol in the fire station. I am the first chief in the history of the department who possessed the guts and the strength of character to implement this change despite the almost universal opposition from the department,” Mignard wrote. “This policy eliminated a significant potential liability for the town.”
Mignard wrote of the strong relationship he encouraged between his firefighters and Police and EMS personnel as well as with businesses and citizens. Mignard said he established job descriptions for the department staff for the first time and heaped encouragement on his volunteer staff to engage in certification training and education.
Following the goals and objectives exercise, Bragan memorialized the list with a “6 month plan.” Mignard thought the exercise was “mostly for discussion… I didn’t expect them to become terms of employment,” Mignard said.
“It was very clear,” Bragan said, saying the goals were worked out with Ron Ricci who served as the selectmen’s liaison to the Fire Department. “At the very end I asked ‘is it doable within six months’ and the answer was ‘yes.’ Had the answer been no, then the list would have been adjusted but that wasn’t the case.”
And since then, Mignard has routinely checked in with Bragan on progress to report to the selectmen. Some goals were met or substantially met, like being available 24/7, Mignard’s open-door managerial approach for anyone who’d avail themselves of the opportunity, his practice of conducting inspections upon request and encouraging his firefighters to partake in as much training as possible.
But other issues went unresolved, Bragan said. As the deadline neared for the selectmen to decide whether to renew Mignard’s contract, Bragan sent a June 10 memo asking the chief for a goals update. The deadline for answers and documentation was the following Monday, June 14, at 3 p.m.
“Had he needed more time to do it, just say so. That’s fine. I thought it was reasonable,” Bragan said. “He (Mignard) never said ‘look I can’t get it to you by 3 o’clock on Monday. Can I get it to you on Wednesday?”
Bragan requested a listing of “all the appointments, activities and inspections done in the past six months.” Mignard responded he didn’t log inspections often times because they were fulfilled immediately. Otherwise he typically used and reused an erasable whiteboard for immediate tasks and that he had just purchased a Smartphone to start scheduling appointments and meetings.
An update was requested on the status of the creation of a formalized equipment maintenance plan for the department. Mignard answered, “Due to the very short time frame of this requirement I am unable to provide such a comprehensive list of files at this time.” Furthermore, Mignard said he works closely with Lt. Tony Shaw to keep equipment up and running
When asked how many of the monthly Fire Chief’s Association meetings he’d attended over the past six months, Mignard said none. “They take up the better part of the day and I don’t get anything out of them.” Instead Mignard said he tracked discussions via the associations’ published minutes and that he actively participates in the group’s blog providing and requesting advice from peers as needed. “I have much success with my own personal network” of local fire chiefs, Mignard responded.
Training, budgeting and availability via his “open-door policy” fulfilled several other goals, Mignard explained. In response to Bragan’s update request, Mignard penned and submitted a letter on June 22 for the selectmen to consider during their contract deliberations.
“As long as I maintain the apparatus and equipment, meet the needs of the public, don’t overspend, improve training and keep morale at a good level, in short, provide a damn good department, it is my call as to how the department is run internally,” Mignard wrote.
Deliberate they did
Mignard said he wasn’t invited to attend the selectmen’s closed door deliberation over his contract status on June 22 (which happened to be Mignard’s 57th birthday). Mignard said he asked Bragan to let him know the outcome of the meeting. Mignard said Bragan’s text message in response was simple: “No decision. Meeting continued.”
Three days later on Friday, June 25, Mignard said the selectmen voted in executive session against any further employment contract extensions for him. But he didn’t know that was going to be the date of their meeting until after the fact. “It’s been kind of a morass of facts and figures and times.”
Mignard said he wasn’t made aware of the selectmen’s decision until Wednesday, June 30, when he met with Bragan. Mignard was asked to characterize the meeting. After a long pause, Mignard said, “Awkward.”
“We didn’t argue but we were so far apart on this issue that I declined to comment,” Mignard said. “I’ve never been in this situation before.”
Mignard drove his Chief’s car at the end of the town’s Independence Day parade on Saturday, July 3,following the dozens of children pedaling their red-white-and-blue festooned bicycles. The town’s parade and Mignard’s participation fell a day after the selectmen’s office issued the late day Friday, July 2, press release of their decision. Four of the five selectmen marched in the parade, too.
Still, as of Monday afternoon, July 5, Mignard said he hadn’t heard from any of the five selectmen. “If they want to talk to me they will. I have not spoken to any of them. Now I’ll be fair: I haven’t reached out to them but neither have they reached out to me at all.”
“I was a little surprised,” Mignard said of the 4-0 selectmen vote not to renew his contract. “On the other hand, I don’t know what deliberations took place. Did it go 3-1? I have no idea how it went. I have been on disciplinary boards where the vote needed to be unanimous.”
More upsetting was that he wasn’t able to tell his officers himself. Mignard was called to meet Bragan at 3 p.m. At 5 p.m., Bragan called in the department’s officers to break the news. “We had a fire call in the middle of it,” Mignard said. “I really wanted to tell them myself.”
Mignard said his crew has weathered many storms together and he wished he was included in the 5 p.m. meeting. “We’ve been through some big fires, operations, ice storms, flooding… we’ve buried a lot of people. Four chiefs, two firefighters and a baby,” Mignard said. “That glues you together whether you like it or not. That builds a bond.”
Bragan said of the decision to meet with the rest of the roster without Mignard present: “We knew the press was going to get it and we wanted to be the first” to inform Mignard’s staff “so that they’re aware that the decision wasn’t taken lightly and also to let them know that the board understands the value that they bring to the Fire Department and that moving forward they will be included. It won’t be a decision made on high solely by the Board of Selectmen or myself.”
Decisions include who will succeed Mignard and what model they may take in possibly retooling management. All models are under consideration, Bragan said. “Full-time chief, part-time chief, regionalization — you name it.”
“I’m not going to be some slacker lame-duck chief,” Mignard said. “I’m going to leave it better than I found it — ready for the next guy — inspections caught up, bills paid.” It will be turn-key. “This is the combination. This is the password to the computer.”
The hunt begins now for Mignard. “I would like to get another chief’s berth — I really would. I like the job. Even after all of this. I’ve certainly got the credentials.”