BANGOR, Maine — The town of Millinocket will get another chance to prove it didn’t break the law four years ago when it eliminated the position of Recreation Department director.
Superior Court Justice William Anderson, who presided over the jury trial last year, on Thursday granted the town’s motion for a new trial in the lawsuit filed by Mary Walsh of Lincoln. A new trial date has not been set.
In September, a Penobscot County jury awarded Walsh $25,000 in damages after finding that the town violated the state’s Whistleblower Protection Act in 2005 when it laid her off after five years on the job.
The jury, according to a story previously published in the Bangor Daily News, found that Walsh was terminated after making complaints about the unsafe condition of some town snowmobile trails. Walsh claimed that she voiced her concerns to Town Manager Eugene Conlogue, to state Trails Administrator Scott Ramsey and former Town Councilor Matthew Polstein, who was president of Twin Pines Snowmobile Club, a nonprofit organization that the town paid to groom the trails.
Walsh said Polstein cast the deciding vote in a 4-to-3 council decision that eliminated her position by consolidating the town Recreation Department with departments in neighboring Medway and Millinocket.
In granting the new trial, Anderson reversed his earlier decision that just Polstein, rather than all four of the councilors who voted to eliminate Walsh’s position, needed to testify. The judge said in his ruling that as the trial progressed, “it became increasingly important for the defense to call the other counselors to add credibility to the legitimate reasons supporting consolidation, potentially diminishing in the jurors’ minds the likelihood that discrimination was a motivating factor in the decision.”
Anderson also said that instead of watching a videotape of the meeting at which the consolidation was decided, the jury should have heard “in-person testimony [that] could have been more effective and would have provided the defense with an opportunity to present the evidence as it chose, by asking appropriate questions, rather than just listening to the taped remarks.”
Town attorney Dean Beaupain of Millinocket said Friday officials were happy with Anderson’s decision.
“We filed for a new trial because we thought errors were made,” he said. “We are pleased that Justice Anderson granted a new trial and believe we’ll be vindicated after we have a fair trial.”
Walsh’s Bangor attorney, A.J. Greif, who last year attributed the favorable verdict to Polstein’s testimony, was equally confident Friday that his client would prevail again.
“The town, whose insurer will pay every dime of damages in this case,” he said, “has moved from the frying pan to the fire in winning its new trial motion. When a second jury sizes up Matt Polstein and his motives, it is likely to award even higher damages than the first jury.
“The town tried to run away from a jury twice,” Greif continued. “The first time was when it filed its summary judgment motion. The second time was its motion for new trial. But it can’t run from justice, and it can’t hide Matt Polstein.”