OAK BLUFFS — Soon after Joseph L. Woodin moved to Martha’s Vineyard to run the local hospital last year, residents and patients noticed a difference. They saw him everywhere — at community meetings, dinners, and events.
Locals embraced the CEO’s open style in leading the hospital, which has just 25 beds but is considered vital to the island.
But in a move that stunned residents, the board of Martha’s Vineyard Hospital fired Woodin this summer, just over a year into his tenure, without explaining why.
Many criticized his dismissal as clumsy, ill-conceived, and poorly communicated, and Woodin himself insists he remains bewildered by it.
And so, the talk of the island this summer is not the latest celebrity sighting or the balmy water temperatures at South Beach, but corporate governance of Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, which is owned by Partners HealthCare, the state’s largest health care network.
It may seem unusual for residents of a beautiful island to be so concerned with who’s running the local hospital. But the Vineyard has a significant population of aging seniors who need frequent medical care or worry about the day when they will. (The median age of islanders is higher than the state average.) Without the hospital, residents would have to take a boat or a plane to the mainland. Many already do so for specialized care.
“This is small-town America — everybody knows everybody’s business,” said Arnie Reisman, a retired documentary filmmaker who lives in Vineyard Haven. “This is the one organization that’s a life-and- death organization — it’s your health care. For them to act in the dark really drives me crazy.”
Reisman is among the scores of residents who have written letters, posted on Facebook, held community meetings, and signed a petition to express frustration with the board’s actions.
In a private meeting in early June, members of the board asked Woodin to resign. He refused. Two days later, in what the board chairman called a nearly unanimous vote, the board terminated him. Hospital officials and Woodin, through their lawyers, are still negotiating the terms of his exit.
“I was in shock and disbelief,” Woodin said in an interview. “I begged them for a reason.”
He has been unusually outspoken about his firing, and much of the community has rallied around him.
Many islanders are demanding new leadership on the hospital board. They want the nonprofit hospital to boost efforts to reach out to the community.
They also believe the hospital should design programs more tailored to the health needs of people on the island — particularly for the elderly. And they still want answers about the firing of Woodin, whom many considered an advocate.
“People are furious,” said Alan Brigish, a retired businessman from West Tisbury whose wife was treated at the hospital before her death several months ago from an illness.
Hospital board chairman Timothy D. Sweet has defended the decision to fire Woodin, which he said was over differences in vision. In an interview, he declined to divulge specifics because of “an obligation for confidentiality,” but he said Woodin did nothing nefarious or inappropriate.
Sweet, who has served on the board for 20 years, acknowledged the need for better communication.
“The public reaction took us a little bit aback. It’s clear now that we could do a better job in reaching out to the community,” said Sweet, the manager of a seaside golf club that draws the rich and famous, including former president Obama.
The year-round population of Martha’s Vineyard, a modest 17,000, swells to more than 100,000 in the summer.
The hospital strives to serve both: the visitors who have unfortunate mishaps with mopeds, surfboards, and poison ivy, and the families who reside here full time and need care for maternity, diabetes, cancer, addiction, and more.
Martha’s Vineyard Hospital has had a turbulent past, marked by executive turnover and financial troubles. It emerged from bankruptcy in 1998. In 2006, the community institution became part of Boston-based Partners HealthCare and its flagship teaching hospital, Massachusetts General. A few years later, the hospital opened a new building, with some $50 million in donations.
“The biggest concern is ‘Here we go again,’ ” said Frederick Rundlet, a health care consultant and innkeeper in Vineyard Haven. “This has been going on since the ’80s, that there’s something systematic, if that’s the word, with the governance and the performance of what the hospital does or doesn’t do. We’re kind of tired of seeing that. Why can’t we get it right?”
The hospital stabilized under the leadership of Timothy J. Walsh, who improved the finances and signed the deal with Partners. Walsh retired in 2016 after about 15 years as CEO.
Woodin, whose tenure began in May 2016, arrived after spending 16 years running Gifford Medical Center in rural Randolph, Vt. His wife had recently died of cancer, and his children were grown, so he felt the time was right for a change.
Woodin, 56, immediately began forging relationships with islanders. He literally kept his door open.
Brigish, who has hosted meetings for residents upset about Woodin’s firing, said the CEO intervened to help Brigish’s ill wife get access to a particular doctor.
“Joe’s greatest strength was in communication with the community. He was wonderful: easy to talk to, very approachable, joking around,” said Patricia “Paddy” Moore, a West Tisbury resident who leads a group focused on healthy aging. She visits the hospital regularly with her husband, who has Alzheimer’s and other illnesses.
Woodin also led the charge for change. He started planning for a new medical building, searched for ways to cut the costs of recruiting and housing workers, asked employees to make suggestions for improving the organization, and began reassessing hospital policies.
“I brought a different style, a different energy about work,” Woodin said.
During his 13-month tenure, the head of the hospital-controlled nursing facility left and a longtime physician resigned after an investigation into allegations that he inappropriately touched a patient.
Woodin’s leadership style contributed to sometimes difficult relationships with certain employees, according to people with knowledge of the situation. This included Rachel Vanderhoop, who heads development and public relations for the hospital and is married to Sweet, the board chairman. Vanderhoop said she believed that she and Woodin had a good working relationship.
Sweet would not comment on Woodin’s treatment of employees but denied the idea that Woodin’s firing is linked to the way he treated Vanderhoop.
Pressed to provide a reason for the termination, Sweet implied that Woodin was not as committed as the rest of the board to the hospital’s decade-long relationship with Partners.
Sweet did not dispute reports in local newspapers that the board initially described Woodin as voluntarily “stepping down.” He acknowledged the board’s vote to terminate Woodin came after the public announcement of the dismissal.
Woodin, who was paid $400,000 a year, plus bonuses, maintains he always acted in the interest of the board and says he is still unsure why he was fired.
“I had not received any concerns or cautionary statements [from the board],” he said. “I was doing a great job and consistently was receiving that feedback.”
Per his contract, the hospital loaned Woodin money earlier this year for the down payment on his $1.2 million island home, he said.
“I bought a house with the expectation that I would be here for five years,” Woodin said, referring to the length of his contract. He does not have another job lined up and said he’s “looking at options.”
Executives at Partners, which has several seats on the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital board, must be consulted when a local CEO is hired or fired.
Tony James, senior vice president of network development and integration at Mass. General and a board member at the Vineyard hospital, declined to comment on Woodin’s departure.
“We let our subsidiaries largely run themselves,” James said.
Walsh, the former chief executive, is back in charge temporarily while the board begins another CEO search.
Hospital officials also plan to hold community meetings this fall to discuss a strategic plan for the institution.
“In many other communities, the CEO comes and goes,’’ said Dr. Pieter Pil, a board member and chief medical officer at the hospital. “Here, people take it seriously.”Priyanka Dayal McCluskey can be reached at priyanka.mccluskey @globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @priyanka_dayal.