By Samantha Allen
Sometimes a little persistence goes a long way.
My editors at The Sun of Lowell came across a tip last summer, just after we learned the Westford fire chief of 37 years was announcing his retirement rather suddenly. His announcement came just a week before it was effective, and on the day I received a press release from Town Hall, we learned he was put on paid administrative leave, too.
We had heard through the grape-vine there was an outside “investigation” of the town fire department, in the quiet suburb located 15 minutes outside Lowell with around 21,000 people.
I called up Town Manager Jodi Ross last July to learn more about then-Fire Chief Richard Rochon, and asked about any investigation coming out of, or surrounding, the department. She told me there was nothing like that in town. I was also informed that with Rochon’s salary at that time exceeding $125,000 a year, his payout would consist of sick and vacation time, as well as longevity, totaling just about $29,000.
I made a few more calls on the tip we received. I was told by the state Fire Marshal’s Office there was no investigation on their end into Westford – and then received a call from Ross telling me she was “disturbed” to hear from the state I was looking more into the issue. The town manager said she didn’t understand what I was after and then told me Rochon had served for 37 years “which is probably longer than you’ve been alive.” (Admittedly, I am 24).
Sources confirmed a consultant had come to the fire department sometime in January 2013, asking about management issues, and meeting with firefighters. When I asked Ross about this confirmed discovery, she told me the investigation was rather a “leadership training” exercise. That’s when I, through The Sun and our corporate parent Digital First Media, filed a public information request with the state’s public records law in late July. We asked for the review and any settlement agreement reached between the town and Rochon.
Town officials responded in early August, stating they would not release the external review because it was a personnel record and therefore exempt from public disclosure. They also wouldn’t release the settlement. We asked the town to reconsider but to no avail, so I appealed to the office of the Secretary of State.
The Sun’s Editor-in-Chief Jim Campanini, Managing Editor Tom Zuppa and Enterprise Editor Christopher Scott and I asked the state to review this case because we believed the public had a right to know what went on. We also learned the external review by a Carlisle-based consultant cost the taxpayers a pretty penny — $2,500. The community deserved to know why they paid for an in-depth review of their town fire department.
It wasn’t until Feb. 10 of this year that I received favorable news from Secretary of State William Galvin’s office on this topic; they said officials had to release the report as well as Rochon’s separation agreement.
Westford Firefighters Union President Dave Greenwood was hesitant to speak with me more about this until all these records became public, but once they came out, he said his union filed a vote of no confidence the week before Rochon retired. We reported that for the first time last month. Greenwood said the chief’s management style, and brisk nature with the crew, rubbed many the wrong way.
The newly-released separation agreement showed the town actually paid out Rochon another $25,000 in severance pay then was previously disclosed. When I called back Ross to ask her why this was never revealed, she told me, “If I recall, you never asked.” When I continued our interview, she clarified it was her and the Board of Selectmen’s understanding this was all supposed to be kept “confidential.” So the town kept it secret.
In the separation agreement, the town promised not to comment on this settlement whatsoever, so selectmen only offered canned responses when reached, or responded with flat out “no comments.” Rochon also denied comment — he was upset I had come across his cell phone number last summer, and told me he’d refuse to speak until I told him how I got his digits. We haven’t talked since.
The external review of the fire department, once released by the town last month, was heavily-redacted, so I’m in the process of re-appealing that to the state. The town blacked out an entire section from the consultant’s findings titled “the negatives,” a couple of “positives,” and some recommendations. I’m now in the process of requesting emails selectmen sent around on this issue, too. I’ve been told by the town manager’s office there are thousands out there, which will likely cost me thousands of dollars in public records requests.
Little information could be gleaned from the report as to why Rochon left, or what led the department to such dysfunction, but it stated two fire captains resigned over the issue. Greenwood said he couldn’t speak for those men but said overall, his union had “reached their breaking point” with their leader.
Why this public official received a $25,000 gift, funded by taxpayers completely without their knowledge, on his way out the door, is still unknown.
We believe a local governing body should be as transparent as possible, and because of our continual requests for public information on this issue, the community learned more about this than ever before. There is still more to this story out there, and I look forward to releasing more information when it comes our way.
Allen is a reporter for the Sun of Lowell newspaper and with Digital First Media. Follow her on Twitter @SAllen_89.