Former Veazie employee, town reach settlement in wrongful termination claim

Posted July 27, 2011, at 7:36 p.m.

VEAZIE, Maine — The longtime tax assessor and code enforcement officer who quit last month after the Town Council voted not to reappoint him has reached a tentative monetary settlement with the town, according to attorneys for both sides.

“It appears we’ve reached a settlement, and the documents are being drafted,” Frederick Costlow of the Bangor law firm Richardson, Whitman, Large and Badger said Wednesday afternoon. “The matter appears resolved.” Costlow was assigned to represent Veazie by the Maine Municipal Association in late June.

Allan Thomas, 65, who worked for the town for more than 21 years, attended a council meeting on June 20 expecting to be reappointed so he could finish the year’s tax commitment and retire in April.

That meeting took place on his first day returning to full-time work after knee surgery. He also was receiving treatment for melanoma, an aggressive form of skin cancer.

“I had come right from my oncologist, who told me I had two weeks to two years to live,” Thomas said in a recent interview.

Thomas called the council’s decision not to reappoint him a “slap in the face.”

“I go to that meeting that night, and they want to play silly games. Well, I wasn’t ready for silly games,” Thomas said.

He quit the next day. Included in his resignation letter was a link to a YouTube video of Johnny Paycheck’s hit “Take This Job and Shove It.”

Soon after, Thomas hired attorney Ed Bearor of Rudman Winchell of Bangor.

Bearor filed a notice of claim and sent an email on June 28 to town attorney Thomas Russell that “presented a demand for $25,000 based on discrimination in employment,” according to a letter from the Maine Municipal Association Risk Management Services.

Bearor and Thomas argued that Thomas should have been reappointed and allowed to finish out his last few months on the job before retirement. Bearor said that the refusal to reappoint Thomas after 21 years on the job, without good cause, amounted to wrongful termination.

Thomas said Wednesday that he planned to accept a $10,500 settlement.

Veazie will pay the Maine Municipal Association a $5,000 deductible, plus 10 percent of the settlement, according to Town Manager Bill Reed. The town’s insurer will pay the remainder.

Thomas and Reed said in interviews earlier this month that they hoped to avoid a costly lawsuit.

“Everyone values Allan’s service to the town. He worked here for 21 years and it’s sad how the departure occurred,” Reed said. “We hope to reconcile any hurt feelings that came from that.”

Councilor Brian Perkins said he and several other councilors were taken by surprise when Thomas quit. The town had been looking into regionalizing in the future and partnering with assessors from other towns as a way to save money in the long term, he said.

“We were waiting to see what was going to happen with other opportunities,” Perkins said, which is why the council held back on reappointing Thomas.

The town plans to hire a tax assessor, and Thomas said he would help the new assessor finish the tax commitment by sometime in August or September.

“I’m not against the town; I’m not against the townspeople; I’m not against the other staff,” Thomas said. “The council made a mistake. It’s not just the one mistake, either.”

Thomas’ relationship with the council had been strained for about two years, he said, to the point where he started recording its meetings, “because I didn’t trust them.”

He said Veazie councilors frequently made behind-the-scenes phone calls and sent emails that “have the effect of a meeting” outside public view.

Councilor Perkins said he couldn’t speak for the rest of the council, but “I don’t personally engage in a lot of that.” Other towns have been warned in the past by the Maine Municipal Association to avoid private emails and conversations about town business, but he said he wasn’t aware of Veazie councilors holding “private talks.”

Council Chairman Joseph Friedman did not return a phone call Wednesday afternoon seeking comment.

Thomas said he also was bothered by the amount of time, energy and money the council spent fighting the proposed telecommunications tower on Buck Hill.

He argued the town paid far too much for consultants and legal fees — about $18,000, according to Reed — when “30 or 40 people didn’t want the tower, and that left 1,700 that didn’t care,” Thomas said.

“I’m frustrated with the council,” Thomas said. “In my opinion, it doesn’t matter what the law says, they’re God.”

Thomas said the Maine Municipal Association would be wise to “give the councilors some training or raise their premiums.”

Thomas’ attorney expects to receive the settlement paperwork sometime this week and have the case wrapped up by Friday or early next week.

“It was as amicable as it could be under the circumstances,” Bearor said. “Now Allan can move on.”

Thomas continues to fight cancer under his eyelid, which was swollen and red July 21 after surgery to remove a tumor. He had to dab his eye with a tissue every few minutes during an interview to soak up fluid that collected around the swelling. He has another surgery scheduled for next month.

He said he and his wife are enjoying his retirement.

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