A divided Ogunquit Board of Selectmen voted Tuesday to uphold the termination of the town fire chief following a tense meeting that culminated in more than 200 residents being asked to leave.

The termination appeal hearing focused on the firing of Mark O’Brien, who had served with the Ogunquit Fire Department for 37 years before he was placed on paid administrative leave in June while town officials investigated complaints about his management style and interaction with his staff. That investigation led to his firing last month, a decision he then appealed.

The hearing – held in public at O’Brien’s request – grew tense at times and the chairman ultimately had the audience removed when people began shouting comments at board members after a motion by Selectmen John Daly to overturn the termination failed.

The selectmen upheld O’Brien’s termination on a 3-2 vote.

O’Brien, an Ogunquit native, had been fire chief for the past six years and served as interim town manager for eight months after former town manager Thomas Fortier was placed on leave during a criminal investigation. O’Brien earned just over $90,000 annually as fire chief and oversaw a staff that included eight full-time firefighters, 15 active volunteers and 18 seasonal lifeguards.

He said he is still considering whether to pursue legal action in response to his termination.

“I’m not done fighting,” O’Brien said Wednesday. “There’s no smoking gun here that I did anything wrong.”

Town Manager Patricia Finnigan said she placed O’Brien on paid administrative leave on June 27 after she received multiple complaints that he created a hostile work environment, yelled at employees, behaved erratically and discriminated based on gender. An investigation by a town attorney found no evidence of gender bias on O’Brien’s part, she said.

Finnigan said she still had concerns about O’Brien’s “management ability, judgment and temperament to lead the department” after the investigation.

“He disagreed and thought he was running the department fine,” Finnigan said. “He didn’t take ownership or responsibility for those things (I was concerned about).”

Finnigan said O’Brien declined to resign his position, so she terminated him on Sept. 18. The Portland Press Herald has requested a copy of O’Brien’s termination letter, but Finnigan said she could not immediately provide it without first speaking to the town attorney.

“Personnel matters are always the most difficult and doing a termination is the worst decision any employer has to make,” Finnigan said. “You don’t go into it lightly. I consider this sad, but I thought it was the right thing to do.”

But O’Brien, who says he has never been disciplined during his time with the department, said he was not given an opportunity to address Finnigan’s concerns or make changes to the way he led the department. He said he was shocked by the termination and didn’t know why he was fired until he was interviewed for more than four hours as part of the investigation.

“I confess I’m not perfect. I do some things that aren’t appropriate. (Do) bosses yell at people? Yes, they do,” O’Brien said during the meeting. “Do other guys engage and yell back at me? Yes, they do. I admitted a lot of things to Ms. Finnigan, but Ms. Finnigan refused to believe anything I said even though there were witnesses there stating that other people raised their voices to me. She said, ‘No, you raised your voice to them.'”

O’Brien’s attorney, James Clifford, did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

After O’Brien was placed on leave in June, rumors began circulating around the town of 900 residents of that he had stolen money, given himself a raise or harassed someone, he said. To dispel those rumors, O’Brien elected to have his appeal hearing held in public.

That decision gave his supporters an opportunity to publicly support O’Brien, who is both well-known and well-liked in town, according to resident Ben Hershenson, one of O’Brien’s supporters. He said most of the people who attended Tuesday supported O’Brien.

“Tonight was a black night for our town,” Hershenson wrote on his Facebook page, Take Back Ogunquit, following the meeting.

Hershenson, who called the situation with O’Brien “a travesty,” said many locals are questioning if it was necessary to fire O’Brien and are considering taking action to remove selectmen from office. The termination was supported by selectmen Charles Waite III, Robert Winn Jr. and Madeline Mooney. Selectmen Daley and Richard Dolliver voted against the termination.

“The old-timers in town say they’ve never seen anything like it,” Hershenson said. “We had such an outpouring of support for Mark.”

That support came as both a surprise and comfort to O’Brien.

“My heart is full and happy with the number of people who came out to support me from Wells and Ogunquit,” he said “I don’t think there’s ever been a meeting that big in Ogunquit. It’s unheard of.”

Finnigan said the select board will decide how and when to start the search for a new fire chief. Former fire chief Edward Smith was appointed last week to lead the department on an interim basis.

Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @grahamgillian

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