NEW FOR THURSDAY: OCFD Investigation Complete; City Council To Hear Findings Soon; Dead Cat Incident Not Part Of Inquiry

OCEAN CITY — The Mayor and Council will soon hear the results of an internal inquiry involving the Ocean City Fire Department (OCFD), but the allegation of a dead cat being placed outside the fire chief’s house after a stormy promotion process last year is not part of that probe.

Ocean City Fire Chief Chris Larmore confirmed to The Dispatch on Tuesday he discovered a dead cat outside his front door back on Nov. 30, 2012. Larmore stopped short of providing more details, such as whether it was his pet or if he thinks a member of the OCFD was behind the incident. When asked if law enforcement was notified of the incident, he said he could not comment further as a result of an ongoing probe.

“It occurred. It’s part of an ongoing investigation that as of this afternoon [Tuesday] I am prohibited from speaking about because it’s tied to a much larger investigation,” Larmore said.

An official report on the alleged incident could not be obtained through local law enforcement agencies, including the Ocean City Police Department, the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office, Worcester County Bureau of Investigation and the Maryland State Police.

“You may not have spoken to the right people. Past that, I cannot comment … I hope to someday be able to share a whole lot about what happened on Nov. 30 but right now I cannot,” said Larmore.

Due to there being no official police report filed at the time, City Manager David Recor said the alleged cat incident “was not the focus of the town-initiated inquiry with Miles and Stockbridge [the city’s labor law firm].”

Recor said Thursday he expects Miles & Stockbridge’s report and recommendations to be presented to the council in an executive session on either March 26 or April 9.

“We made an inquiry based on the allegations that were made, and they will be giving the council an update at an upcoming closed session. The inquiry is complete,” Recor said last week. “That’s about as much as I can say generally without going into specifics.”

The investigation of the OCFD was launched after a complaint was filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) against the Town of Ocean City over a disturbing set of incidents that reportedly took place after a controversial promotion process last year.

In the late fall of 2012, Larmore promoted two lieutenants to captain — Trevor Steedman and Kathleen Hartley, who is known to many as “Kat”. Last week Larmore referred to the four-month promotion process as “detailed and fair,” despite claims to the contrary in a grievance filed over the matter. That grievance alleged malfeasance in the process but was rejected by Larmore as well as Recor. A Freedom of Information Act request by this newspaper to obtain all grievances filed involving the OCFD in recent months was rejected last month because they were a matter of “personnel records”.

It was well documented within the OCFD last fall there was one going to be one individual promoted to captain, and Steedman was reportedly a lock for that post due to his credentials and experience with the OCFD. Larmore advocated for a second promotion and received permission from Recor as well as a majority of the Mayor and Council, although it was not an easy road and involved a compromise that Hartley would be deemed the “acting captain” until a current captain followed through on his perceived intentions to retire soon.

Larmore said last week the second promotion was a result of necessary succession planning because a majority of the OCFD command staff is nearing retirement age. He said he was able to make the dual promotion without any impact on the current fiscal year budget.

“I felt at the end of that process there were two people well suited and qualified in terms of succession planning to lead this department,” he said last week.

The EEOC complaint deals with the fallout associated with that promotion. The EEOC has confirmed receipt of the complaint, but officials will not discuss the specifics of what is included. That EEOC filing led the city to bring in Miles & Stockbridge to conduct an internal inquiry into the matter as well as other general workplace allegations.

The probe sought to determine whether specific acts of harassment and discrimination were waged against Hartley before and after she was promoted. Amid inferences the promotion was linked to a private relationship between Hartley and the chief, the work environment reportedly became so strained that Hartley was permitted to work from home for an unidentified amount of time.

It was during this alleged commotion within the OCFD that the chief discovered a dead cat had been deposited at his home in north Ocean City. Larmore has been gagged from speaking about the incident as a result of an ongoing investigation, he reported Tuesday. Recor said it’s not part of the labor law firm’s investigation and it’s unclear today if the town’s human resources department is involved in the matter. What is clear is no criminal police report exists involving a dead cat around the date of Nov. 30, 2012.

According to the Ocean City Police Department call logs, there is no incident between the dates of Nov. 20 and Dec. 2 that fit the type of call for service consistent with the discovery of foul play involving a cat. Specifically, OCPD Public Information Officer Mike Levy said the department has had no involvement in “the dead cat issue.”

“There was never a complaint on this matter. We can’t confirm it or deny it. There was nothing to investigate,” Levy said. “As far as we are concerned, there is nothing to it. It’s not related to anything police-wise. We have no police information and our Animal Control people never received any official complaint about it.”

Worcester County Sheriff’s Office Sheriff Reggie Mason said he has “no knowledge of” an incident of that nature, but he said his team is rarely deployed in Ocean City unless it’s to provide support during large special events.

Worcester County Bureau of Investigations Supervisor Detective Sergeant Mike Lupiwok said his agency is not involved in the matter either.

“We didn’t investigate anything about a cat around that time, according to our records,” Lupiwok said.

A duty officer at the Maryland State Police said no report was filed with his agency on or around that date.

While reiterating he cannot divulge specifics, Larmore did address those who believe it’s simply a rumor or at worst a fabrication.

“I believe I have established enough credibility within the town in the last seven years that there are very few people who would go up against that credibility,” Larmore said. “It’s one of those things — the people who really believe in you need no explanation and those who don’t will never believe you anyway.”

Larmore believes doubts over the cat incident taking place are rooted in the recent disgruntled minority within the career Fire/EMS division that has vocalized concerns through a support group of 15 wives of career firefighter/paramedics.

“It’s not about a cat being a feline or a cat being a female, it’s about a very small group of people that I would hope would develop a much better attitude. What about the other 95% of the people who are happy? I would hope you and others report on them as well … In the public eye, it’s very much interesting but it doesn’t take away from the fact that we have a group that feels they were treated unfairly or that there is a hostile work environment … if that’s still their big concern, then they need to deal with that concern,” Larmore said. “This is called smoke and mirrors, let’s go find something else to stir everybody up about.”

Recor held the first of a series of employee-only meetings with the career division this week to hear their concerns over the workplace environment at the town fire houses.

“I want them to share their ideas, suggestions and concerns without fear of any kind of repercussions, and I want to listen. As city manager, I will be able to discern what is a bargaining unit issue and what is something that needs to be addressed at the management level,” Recor said last week.

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