Monday, March 23, 2015

Foxboro Chief Has No Excuse

This column originally appeared in The Sun Chronicle on Monday, March 23, 2015.

By Bill Gouveia

Roger Hatfield has established a solid reputation as Foxboro's fire chief.  He is a well-respected and popular figure in his community.

But recently the veteran department head admitted he violated Massachusetts election laws, saying he was unaware at least one existed.  Chief Hatfield circulated petitions requesting tenure for his “great friend” Town Clerk Bob Cutler to on-duty firefighters inside the Public Safety Building, seeking their signatures to help place the matter on the ballot.  This is expressly illegal.

When it was brought to his attention, Town Manager Bill Keegan reacted swiftly.  He told Hatfield of the violation, which he called unintentional but serious.  He also immediately sent out notice to all Foxboro’s municipal employees reminding them of what they should already know.

“You can’t mix politics and administration.  There are strict limitations on political activity while on duty or in uniform”, Keegan said.

Chief Hatfield admitted the offense, saying, “I probably should not have done that.”  He was remorseful and apologetic, but prior to speaking with the town manager said, “I never thought it was inappropriate to do it in uniform.  I honestly don’t know there is a rule against it.”

And herein lies what some see as the real problem with this situation.  

It can be fairly argued Chief Hatfield should have known of this pretty basic law.  He is no rookie.  He has been chief in Foxboro for almost seven years.  During that time he has received ethics training as mandated by state law.  The individual he was in effect campaigning for is the individual in charge of overseeing that training.  Frankly, there is no valid excuse for the Chief not being aware.

But let’s assume for a moment there is.  After all, no one can possibly be up-to-date on every single regulation and law.  The chief is a firefighter, not a lawyer.  Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and say he did not realize his activity was illegal.

It was still very wrong.  For the chief to solicit those signatures from on-duty firefighters inside the Public Safety building while in uniform is irresponsible, even if it were legal.  It shows incredibly bad judgment.  It calls into question the chief’s commitment to his administrative duties.  Frankly, it is either really dumb or really arrogant.

There should be no political activity conducted by town employees while on the taxpayer’s dime.  Most private businesses frown on employees doing anything but company work while on duty, and public entities should demand the same.  While town employees are perfectly entitled to sign petitions and/or campaign on behalf of candidates, they should not do so while working.

And supervisors or administrators are supposed to prevent that kind of thing from happening, not encourage it or do it themselves.  That is a basic tenant of being in charge of people.  It is not a law, or a regulation, or some complicated concept.  It is simple common sense.

Chief Hatfield should have known “there is a rule against it”.  In fact, he should have been enforcing it as well as following it.  It is his responsibility to make sure the men and women under his command are doing the town’s business and giving no other appearance on town time.  Not because of any law, but because it is sound management. 

Politics is an inevitable part of every department head’s job.  It is impossible to totally and completely avoid them while working for any community.

But an administrator taking political petitions to subordinates while on duty, in uniform and inside the workplace, is more than a simple mistake.  Such acts are deliberate and wrong.  They could be seen as coercive or intimidating.  Legal or not, they should never occur in a public workplace. 

There is little doubt Chief Hatfield regrets the incident and is sorry.  And there should be no grand overreaction to what happened.

But neither should it be easily dismissed or quickly forgotten.  This is serious stuff.  The town manager has taken steps to make sure this does not happen again, and that is good.

But it happened in the first place, and that should be of deep concern in Foxboro.  It could speak to a larger problem and a dangerous attitude.

Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and longtime local official.  He can be emailed at and followed on Twitter at @Billinsidelook.

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