Taking on the Ashland Police Department would seem like a relatively easy task for a former fighter pilot who shot down an Iraqi aircraft in Desert Storm.
But as Anthony Schiavi was getting slammed by Ashland residents earlier this month for his decision to suspend beleaguered Police Chief Scott Rohmer, the Air Force colonel looked a little uncomfortable.
“I came in with my eyes wide open,” said Schiavi, Ashland’s new town manager, in a recent interview in his office. “I spent 30 years defending people’s ability to do exactly what you saw last week. That’s our government, right? So people have a right to voice their opinions.”
Still, it was hard, he said, hearing residents lament the departure of Rohmer, who is a hometown hero to some despite his legal troubles.
“It was important for me to listen to what they had to say on an issue that was obviously very important to all the folks that were there,” said Schiavi, who is 52.
Rohmer and the town, as well as some other police officers, are being sued in Norfolk Superior Court, and are also the subject of two workplace gender discrimination complaints filed with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination.
The lawsuit was filed by two police officers who say Rohmer retaliated against them after they complained about misconduct in the department. Rohmer has denied almost all the charges, but did admit to misusing department resources when he asked a subordinate to perform a forensic search of his wife’s laptop and cellphone.
Rohmer is on paid leave until his contract expires in June. Stephen Doherty, a retired police chief with 33 years of law enforcement experience, is serving as the department’s interim chief while officials look for a permanent replacement.
The decision to hire Schiavi as the new town manager was unanimous by the five-member Board of Selectmen. He will make $140,000 a year.
“When you meet the man and start to engage in a conversation, to me, without question, regardless of the room he walks into, he’s, if not the smartest guy in the room, he’s one of them,” said Steven Mitchell, the board’s chairman.
He was a nontraditional candidate, said Mitchell, but Schiavi also has experience dealing with local and state government via his role as executive director of the Massachusetts Military Reservation, which is home to four military commands, including Otis Air National Guard Base.
The position oversees just under 4,000 employees, both civilian and military, and the Cape Cod facility is, in many ways, like a small town, with its own police, fire, and public works operations, said Schiavi. He will retire in September after 30 years in the military.
The Air Force has changed in recent years, said Schiavi, and leadership there is not much different than what you see in large companies. His style of leadership is to encourage staff to take on problems, solve them, and enjoy the credit, he said.
“They work harder, they’re happier, they’re more motivated because they’re getting recognized for everything that’s going on,” said Schiavi.
Because of his military obligations, he will not start full time in Ashland until June 17. Schiavi was sworn in as town manager March 27, and on April 1 he announced that he had placed Rohmer on paid administrative leave, and that his contract as police chief would not be renewed when it expires in June.
Mitchell, in his first term on the board, said the troubled police force was not his only concern when the selectmen were interviewing town manager candidates, but it was certainly an important one.
He endorses Schiavi’s early handling of the situation.
“We have an organization in our town that’s broken and needs to be repaired,” said Mitchell.
Rohmer is a good man, he added, but it would be hard to deny he is also divisive. Mitchell said the 100 or so people who turned out to support Rohmer at a selectmen’s meeting on April 3 have been matched by residents who have called in or e-mailed to support Schiavi’s decision.
Schiavi grew up in Holliston, graduated from Marian High School in Framingham, and has relatives living in Ashland. His last name will sound familiar to those who recall the dairy farm that his family owned in Sherborn, a property that extended into Ashland and Holliston.
Although he will keep his home in Harwich, Schiavi said, he will also find a place in Ashland so he can immerse himself in the community.
His military career began in 1983, after he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Assumption College.
In 1988, Schiavi received the F-15 Top Gun Award.
Around the same time he became known as “Kimo,” short for Kimosabe, a nickname for “faithful friend’’ that even his wife and 3-year-old grandson have adopted.
In 1990 and 1991, he served in Saudi Arabia as part of Operation Desert Storm. His F-15, which is a single-seat fighter plane, was one of four that was chasing a foursome of Iraqi MiG-23s one morning in January 1991 when another four Iraqi MiGs took off in the same area.
“Originally, we thought, ‘Well maybe they’re going to try to put us in sort of a vise,’ ” Schiavi recalled. “If we turn now, we’ve got MiGs in front of us and we’ve got MiGs behind us, if those other guys turn around.”
So they took on the four, but one Iraqi aircraft turned around. The US pilots shot down the other three, and one of those hits was attributed to Schiavi.
The air battle was chronicled on the History Channel’s “Dogfights of Desert Storm,” he said.
On Sept. 11, 2001, Schiavi was operations group commander at Otis, which was the point of origin of the first armed fighters to get to New York City in response to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.
But perhaps one of his biggest challenges, professionally, came in 2005, when Otis lost its F-15s and was left without a mission, said Brigadier General Gary Keefe, who is Schiavi’s boss.
Schiavi came in as the new wing commander and secured an intelligence mission for the group.
“Kimo is without a doubt the best wing commander I have ever interacted with in my 27 years of military experience,” Keefe said. “I have never met a guy who can multitask the way he can.
“Every organization he’s been in, he’s made it better than when he got it,” the general said of Schiavi. “He elevates everyone’s performance.”Lisa Kocian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeLisaKocian.