Former city officials in court for civil suit

Posted Aug. 18, 2009, at 10:01 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 12:14 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — To Mary Walsh, former Millinocket Town Councilor Matthew Polstein is an autocratic, vindictive businessman who effectively fired her as the town’s Recreation Department director to stop her complaints about snowmobile trail grooming efforts crucial to the survival of his business.

To the town of Millinocket, Walsh is a disgruntled former employee who supported the consolidation of her department with two neighboring towns before she teamed with Polstein’s bitter political adversaries and created a history of complaints to save her job and file a civil lawsuit.

A nine-member jury might decide today who is right.

Walsh’s second whistle-blower trial continued Tuesday at Bangor Superior Court with Walsh, former Councilors Polstein, Wallace Paul and David Nelson — who flew in from Wisconsin on a $500, town-paid round-trip ticket — testifying about Walsh’s termination in May 2005.

Walsh claims in her lawsuit that Polstein cast the deciding vote in a 4-3 council decision that effectively terminated her position. A previous trial resulted in Walsh being granted a decision that would have given her $25,000 in damages, but the town successfully sought a second trial.

Polstein, Nelson and Paul testified that their several votes in support of consolidating recreation departments with East Millinocket and Medway reflected their desire to have the town share in the eventual savings and program enrichment they believed would come with consolidation.

“I thought it [consolidation] would allow us to deliver better services in an economical fashion,” Nelson said.

Consolidation “is going to be critical” to the Katahdin region, Paul testified. “All of our tax bases are shrinking.”

Polstein described his relationship with Walsh as “friendly and lighthearted” until Walsh realized that his beliefs on consolidation would lose her a job.

“I wasn’t aware of her complaints until after the vote,” Polstein testified.

Polstein disputed Walsh’s contention that as an overseer of trail maintenance, she had complained to him 10 times between December and March 2005 about poor trail conditions on trails maintained by the Twin Pines Snowmobile Club. Polstein accepts state and town money for trail grooming, but also subsidizes part of the club’s grooming efforts as part of his lodging and snowmobile rental businesses, New England Outdoors Center and Twin Pines Camps.

Walsh maintains that the businesses’ trail-grooming efforts were poor, threatened public safety, and that her complaints jeopardized Polstein’s ability to get grants crucial to his business.

Polstein says the trails were well-maintained.

Through testimony elicited by town attorney Melissa Hewey, Polstein was portrayed Tuesday as a dedicated businessman who would not allow poor trail conditions to threaten the success of his business. Under Hewey’s questioning, Walsh admitted that her desk calendar, apparently her record for trail inspections, failed to note problems with Polstein’s trail maintenance.

Polstein said he found ridiculous one claim Walsh made, that a trail groomer had blown by a snowmobiler at about 30 mph.

“Those [groomers] can go maybe 7 to 11 miles an hour, tops,” Polstein said. “We were being accused of something that is impossible to do.”

Yet under cross-examination from Walsh’s attorney, A.J. Greif of Bangor, Polstein admitted that he might have heard about Walsh’s complaints to state Trails Administrator Scott Ramsey from another snowmobile entrepreneur in late February, well before the deciding consolidation votes.

Greif also made Polstein, Paul and Nelson recount previous efforts to consolidate the Katahdin region police and recreation departments and the solid waste disposal operations, which the council voted against, hinting that the recreational merger later occurred merely to rid the town of Walsh.

Greif also made them acknowledge a report written by Town Manager Eugene Conlogue that anticipated no cost savings from consolidating recreation for at least two years and that the council in effect ignored the wishes of dozens of residents who appeared at one council meeting to protest the consolidation.

At that meeting only Polstein’s wife, Wendy, spoke in favor of consolidation.

Paul and Nelson also said they were unaware of a confrontation between Walsh and Polstein outside a Millinocket Chinese restaurant until after the vote was taken. Walsh described the confrontation as heated; Polstein eventually conceded that it might have seemed that way to others.

Testimony in the trial that began Monday will continue this morning.

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