By Steven Fletcher
Mayor Carolyn Kirk removed Acting Fire Chief Steven Aiello from his command Monday following an investigation into the department honor guard's conduct at last week's Memorial Day ceremonies.
And the mayor named former Needham Fire Chief Robert DiPoli to take his place in leading the department as acting chief, effective immediately and running through June 30.
In announcing the changes and notifying the City Council, Kirk — who said she met with Aiello Monday morning — said she demoted Aiello for what she described as "conduct unbecoming," and for failing to properly command and lead the department's honor guard at the Memorial Day ceremonies.
Kirk said that, after interviewing witnesses and reviewing photos from citizens who raised the issue, it appeared clear that members of the honor guard — including Aiello — turned their backs to the mayor and the podium while Kirk spoke during the ceremony at Gloucester's World War II memorial; some of those in the honor guard also turned their backs when Kirk laid the memorial wreath.
A set of five photos shown by the mayor to the Times shows the firefighters — in full dress uniform and representing the city and the department at the event, Kirk noted — at first facing the mayor and the podium as Kirk begins her remarks, and as Vietnam Veterans Memorial program coordinator Mark Nestor, who introduced Kirk at Kent Circle, leaves the podium. But succeeding photos show the honor guard with their backs to the mayor, even as cadets from the Gloucester High School ROTC continue to face the mayor at attention. Both groups were behind the Memorial, and out of Kirk's view, but could be seen by many spectators and other program participants.
"This created a problem of public perception, a leadership issue, and dishonoring of the occasion," Kirk told the Times Monday. "We had no choice but to bring in an acting chief."
Kirk said more disciplinary action against others in the perceived protest may follow, but that new acting chief DiPoli, who took the reins of the department Monday, will carry out the remainder of the departmental investigation.
DiPoli, who was hired through New Hampshire-based Municipal Resources Inc., the consulting firm that led Gloucester's search for a new fire chief, will serve in an acting role until the time that Eric Smith, now deputy chief in Westland, Mich., is expected to take over as Gloucester's new permanent chief on July 1, pending City Council approval.
Aiello did not return calls seeking comment on this story Monday.
Aiello — who, a day after Kirk announced her selection of Smith as the city's new permanent chief, sent a memo to his department urging them to "welcome" and "work with" the new chief — had said last week that nothing that happened during the Memorial Day ceremonies had anything to do with the Kirk's choice of a new chief from outside the department. He had said there was no planned snub of the mayor because of her choice of fire chief, he said last week, adding that, as acting chief, he would not have allowed a protest during Gloucester's Memorial Day observance.
Photos, however, show Aiello and another deputy — identifiable by their white hats — with their backs turned.
Local firefighters' union president Phil Bouchie, who was also at the scene, said the action was not pre-planned, but "just happened." He said, however, it was more about the city's initial step to remove the visit to the Vietnam War Memorial from the parade route and the city's Memorial Day program than about the department's often stormy relationship with Kirk.
"Everything Carolyn Kirk does creates a state of chaos," Bouchie said after learning of Aiello's ouster.
DiPoli also could not be reached for comment Monday.
According to his resume, he worked in Needham for 35 years, and, in addition to serving as president of the Fire Chiefs Association, was elected president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs in 2004. He also currently serves as the governmental affairs director for the state Fire Chiefs Association.
Kirk said that she took Monday's action under provisions of the contract Aiello signed in February when he was named acting chief when three-year interim chief Phil Dench retired.
By Kirk's action, Aiello remains with the department as one of its four deputy chiefs. Aiello had been paid, however, at an annual rate of $104,000 while serving as acting chief. The city's Personnel Department didn't return an e-mail Monday regarding his salary as deputy chief, to which he now returns.
Kirk said that she, Personnel Director David Bain, City Solicitor Suzanne Egan, and Chief Administrative Officer James Duggan began the investigation last Tuesday after receiving several citizen complaints. Kirk did not name the citizens who raised the complaints. The mayor said the group discussed the complaints, and reviewed both the series of photos and the Cape Ann TV recorded telecast of the ceremonies.
"There was no reason in the world for this to happen, on this day," Kirk said.
Steven Fletcher may be contacted at 1-978-283-7000 x3455, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevengdt.