Millinocket loses suit to former official

Posted Sept. 10, 2008, at 11:22 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — A civil court jury ended a three-day trial Wednesday by affirming a Lincoln woman’s wrongful termination claim against the town of Millinocket with an award of $25,000 in damages, officials said.

A former Millinocket Recreation Department director, Mary Walsh claimed that town officials violated the Whistle-blower Protection Act when the town laid her off in 2005 after five years on the job, according to a claim her attorney filed at Penobscot County Superior Court in Bangor.

The jury trial began Monday after Justice William Anderson rejected a request for a summary judgment from the attorney representing Millinocket, Melissa Hewey of Portland.

Walsh’s attorney, A.J. Greif of Bangor, was pleased with the jury’s verdict. Maine civil law, he said, allowed a maximum damage award of $50,000 in such suits against municipalities such as Millinocket, which has fewer than 100 employees. Greif expects that Anderson will award Walsh $50,000 in back pay and $50,000 in lawyer’s fees when he rules further on the case next month.

Greif said he also expects a reinstatement order from the judge and that “those four things together make this a grand slam.”

Greif attributed his success to the testimony of Town Councilor Matthew Polstein and the jury believing Walsh’s claims that Polstein had harassed her, abused his position and exacted revenge against her for complaining about his “terrible” grooming of town snowmobile trails.

“Matt Polstein for me was one of the most helpful witnesses I could have asked for. He is someone who didn’t understand that power was a gift from the people, not a sword for revenge,” Greif said.

Town Manager Eugene Conlogue declined to comment Wednesday because the town might appeal the verdict. Conlogue said he expects to discuss the issue during the council’s meeting today.

Reading from a prepared statement, Polstein said, “Given the outrageous nature of the claims made regarding our grooming, and [given] the population decline and economic turmoil the Katahdin region have experienced in recent years, how any jury could conclude that a vote to contract recreation services with East Millinocket would do anything but improve the quality of services, increase cooperation and reduce costs in the long run is beyond imagination.”

In her lawsuit, Walsh claimed that she had been terminated because she made several complaints about the unsafe condition of some town snowmobile trails to Conlogue, to state Trails Administrator Scott Ramsey and to Polstein, president of Twin Pines Snowmobile Club, a nonprofit organization the town pays to groom the trails.

She claimed that Polstein cast the deciding vote in a 4-3 council decision in 2005 that effectively terminated her position by consolidating the town Recreation Department with departments in Medway and East Millinocket.

The jury and judge rejected defense arguments that Polstein’s vote was merely one of four and that he had not exacted revenge with his vote.

“One could conclude that prior to the vote Mr. Polstein was extremely annoyed because of plaintiff’s complaints,” Justice Anderson wrote in his rejection of the town’s request for summary judgement.

Anderson further wrote that a jury could find credible Walsh’s claim that on one occasion, Polstein conducted himself in a threatening manner outside a Millinocket restaurant when he parked his vehicle so as to block hers.

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