Sabattus town manager forces out fire chief over payroll ‘irregularities’

Posted Oct. 24, 2013, at 6:30 a.m.

SABATTUS, Maine — In response to what he described as growing requests about the former fire chief’s resignation this past spring, Town Manager Andrew Gilmore released a memo late Tuesday night saying for the first time that he gave Don Therrien a choice to resign or be terminated over payroll “irregularities.”

Therrien resigned in March. Now he’s one of six candidates running for three selectman seats next month.

“I don’t want to influence the outcome of elections,” Gilmore said. “It really is up to the voters, but at the same time, so many people have been asking me. So I talked to our attorney.”

Therrien, a 28-year volunteer with the Fire Department, said Wednesday that those irregularities included paying the husband-and-wife Emergency Management Services directors in one stipend check, in only the husband’s name, instead of two individual checks. A selectman flagged the situation last November as something he shouldn’t do. But it was a practice that selectmen, who sign off on all checks, had previously approved.

He said he was stunned that it helped lead to the abrupt choice in March — resign or be fired — and called the timing of Tuesday’s memo politically motivated.

Therrien said he’s only had one would-be voter ask, two weeks ago, about what really happened.

“If you want to know the story, go to 85 Elm St.,” Therrien said, giving his address. “I honestly thought this was all behind me until last night. Come and talk to me — I’m not running from anything.”

Gilmore’s memo said he discovered payroll and scheduling irregularities within the Fire Department late last year and early this year. He said he asked for payroll records repeatedly, never received them, and placed Therrien and two EMS officials, identified Wednesday as Tom and Diane Avery, on administrative leave on Feb. 27.

Gilmore hired an investigator to examine the department’s files and wrote in the memo, “I presented Don Therrien with the report findings … I advised him that I was considering serious disciplinary action and offered him the opportunity to share any new information or otherwise respond. He did not offer anything that changed my evaluation of the situation.”

In late March, Therrien was given the choice of how he wanted to leave the job.

Therrien wrote in his March 24 resignation, “I wish the Fire Department success in the future. It is with a heavy heart that I will be unavailable to continue being a part of the Sabattus Fire Department’s future.”

The Averys were terminated from their positions.

Therrien, a full-time firefighter in Auburn, had been Sabattus chief twice, for five years in all. During his administrative leave, someone from public works bolted his office door at the Fire Department. “In front of my firefighters, he made it look like I was a criminal,” he said.

He heard rumors that he’d stolen money for his children’s college; he doesn’t have children in college.

Therrien said he attempted several times to physically bring Gilmore the payroll records he asked for but missed him at the office. He said a review of those records found both the single check for the two Averys and some minor bookkeeping errors in recording points for firefighters’ calls and trainings, some point totals over, some under.

Gilmore said Wednesday there was no missing money. He declined to comment beyond the memo, saying the matter involved confidential personnel information.

Therrien said he planned to continue his bid for a selectman seat, and felt he and Gilmore could still work together professionally.

“I’m over the chief’s job; that’s a door that’s closed,” Therrien said. “I’m just trying to move on. I’m going to take the high road. I’m not chief anymore; how can I serve the community?”

Tom and Diane Avery started the EMS program as a pilot project for Sabattus in January 2012. Tom Avery said Wednesday they were “shocked and surprised” to find themselves terminated.

After being told about the improper single check, he said they offered to work with the town in any way to fix it. He wasn’t aware of other allegations of impropriety.

“I think this is their version of an October surprise — usually you have it on the national end of things, but not the local level,” Avery said. “I feel very bad for Don.”

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