City readies response to chiefs' suit

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WESTBROOK — The city is expected to respond by month’s end to a complaint  filed in court by two top fire officials who argue the mayor threatened to fire them for raising safety and operational concerns within the department.

Fire Chief Andrew Turcotte and Deputy Chief Stephen Sloan filed a lawsuit in in April against the city, alleging the city, specifically the mayor, subjected them to “adverse employment action by threatening” to terminate their employment and subjecting them “to a hostile working environment.”

The complaint, filed in Superior Court through Troubh Heisler attorney Jonathan Goodman, argues the chiefs “suffered damages, including but not limited to, loss of income, medical damages, physical and emotional pain and suffering.” The amount they are seeking was not specified.

Mayor Mike Sanphy told the American Journal he had no comment at this time other than “this is another bump in the road.”

“We have been told by legal counsel not to comment right now,” he said.

City Administrator Jerre Bryant said a response from the city through its legal counsel is expected by month’s end. As much as he might want to, he said, he cannot offer specific comment about the lawsuit.

“It is difficult for me to read this and say I have no comment, but I can’t say anything at this point,” he said.

Turcotte also said he couldn’t offer specifics.

“Our goal is to resolve this as quickly as possible,” he said.

According to the complaint, in April and May 2017 Turcotte and Sloan “raised a number of concerns both orally and in writing, with the city’s mayor, the city administrator, the assistant city administrator and the director of human resources related to legal and safety issues as well as issues concerning policy violations.

Of particular concern was a volunteer firefighter being paid to work as “an independent fire inspector for the city.” Turcotte and Sloan were concerned the individual, who is not named in the paperwork, “was potentially inspecting on which he and/or his company had worked,” was “potentially being paid to perform two separate jobs at the same time” and “had the possibility of incentives to make favorable findings with respect to buildings on which he and/or his company had worked.”

The two chiefs, who Bryant said are still active employees, also had concern with the city’s intention to convert the former firehouse at 41 Cumberland St. into space for police/fire volunteers and call company members. It has been suggested the building, which served as the city’s fire station from 1947 to 2004, be used as space for those groups, but Turcotte and Sloan felt doing so was “in violation of safety codes to a fire station.” The council ended up nixing the idea, but not before several fire/police volunteers resigned.

“Soon after Chief Turcotte and Deputy Chief Sloan raised their concerns, they learned from other city employees that, because the mayor had personal and/or political interests in the issues about which Chief Turcotte and Deputy Chief Sloan had raised concerns, the mayor was now seeking to terminate their employment and also that the mayor was undermining them with their subordinates, particularly with the city’s volunteer call company,” the complaint reads.

The suit alleges Sanphy began getting anonymous complaints from call company members and the community about the fire department and Turcotte and Sloan. The chiefs “made clear” to city staff “that they believed the mayor’s actions were retaliatory and they asked that it stop.” The suit claims Sanphy initially denied undermining Turcotte and Sloan, but “later admitted to doing so.” Turcotte and Sloan were told by Bryant and Human Resources Director Jennifer Ogden, the suit says, that “although each agreed the mayor was retaliating against Chief Turcotte and Deputy Chief Sloan, nothing could be done about it, as he was the city’s executive officer.” Ogden allegedly said she was also in fear of retaliation from Sanphy.

After again bringing up their concerns in June 2017, “restrictions were placed on Chief Turcotte and Deputy Chief Sloan that made it unduly difficult and stressful to perform their work duties,” the complaint says. It states Sanphy hindered their investigation into employee misconduct and altered “the deployment of department resources without approval of Chief Turcotte and Deputy Chief Sloan in violation of the city charter.”

 In July 2017, after again allegedly being told by Sanphy “he intended to terminate the employment” of the chiefs and the only reason he hadn’t done so “was because he had been convinced not to do so by other people,” Turcotte and Sloan filed discrimination /retaliation complains the the Maine Human Rights Commission. In early February, the Maine Human Rights Commission provided the chiefs with “separate right to sue letters.” Later that month, the suit says, the city allegedly informed Turcotte and Sloan that it had received “complaints from members of the call company that Chief Turcotte and Deputy Chief Sloan are retaliating against them for their involvement in the issue involving 41 Cumberland Street and other unrelated issues,” but that those complaints were “without merit.”

As mayor, Sanphy has the power to hire and fire city employees. According to the city charter, “the mayor’s executive authority shall include the power to organize the City into various Departments in order to promote the effective and orderly management of the City. This authority includes the power to hire and discharge employees in accordance with applicable laws, regulations and contracts.”

Last summer, the council of the whole reviewed the power the mayor has to hire or fire department heads. There is language in city statutes that states how the city administrator, city clerk, city engineer, auditor, finance director, public works director and general assistance director can be removed, but leaves the hiring and firing of other department heads at the mayor’s discretion.

Councilor Lynda Adams said at that July 10, 2017, meeting, that there should be a uniform process and standards for appointing and removing department heads.

“I believe in consistency, so I think it is a good idea we are talking about this,” she said. “I don’t think we should pick and choose which department heads we have to approval for removal or approval of the position itself.”

Sanphy said then he doesn’t object to the process in place now. He said making it so all appointments and removals go to the City Council for approval would “bring personnel matters into public discussion,” which he opposes.

Council President Brendan Rielly, who requested the session of the committee of the whol, said the reason for the meeting was not specific to Sanphy, but rather to take a proactive approach. He said his concern was someone could come in as mayor and do “a massive clearing of department heads.”

“Thankfully, we have never had that, but someday we could,” he said at the time.

A charter amendment would be needed in order to make any changes, a process that has not been enacted yet.

Michael Kelley can be reached at 781-3661 x 125 or mkelley@keepmecurrent.com or on Twitter @mkelleynews

Fire Chief Andrew Turcotte and Deputy Fire Chief Stephen Sloan have filed a complaint in court alleging Mayor Mike Sanphy, above, dretaliated at them after they brought up safety and legal concerns within the fire department.

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