SANGERVILLE, Maine — Residents will be asked next week if they wish to authorize selectmen to spend up to $30,000 to defend former Sangerville Selectman Lance Burgess in a civil lawsuit filed against him by resident Frank Ruksznis.
Ruksznis had been the town’s independent plumbing inspector until last spring, when the plumbing inspector and the code enforcement officer’s positions were combined in an effort to streamline the planning board process. Selectmen hired George Tozier, who had been the code enforcement officer, to do both jobs.
Selectmen voted on that appointment and others, although they found out a week or two later that the appointments should have been made by the town manager. At the time, the town had an interim town manager, but the selectmen decided to keep the appointments anyway.
As a result of that move, Ruksznis filed a lawsuit against Burgess on Sept. 23 in U.S. District Court alleging that the decision to illegally fire him was based on slanderous statements made by Burgess in April 2010. Ruksznis also claimed he was denied due process.
Ruksznis, who is manager of the Guilford-Sangerville Sanitary District, has asked for a jury trial, wants his job back, as well as back pay and compensatory and punitive damages.
Dave Pearson, who assumed the town manager’s position in recent weeks, said the town’s attorney believes it could cost the town as much as $30,000 to defend the case.
“My initial reaction was, ‘We are not named, why are we involved?’” Pearson said of the lawsuit. Burgess resigned abruptly in April 2011. The Maine Municipal Association, however, believes Maine tort claims puts the obligation on the town to cover public officials, he said.
The problem is the town carries no employee practice liability insurance that would cover such lawsuits, according to Pearson. “It looks like we don’t have the insurance coverage,” he said. He said former Town Manager Michelle Dumoulin canceled it. The insurance company is taking the stance that Ruksznis was an employee of the town even though his lawsuit stated he was an independent contractor. Had the town carried the employee practice liability insurance, it would have covered the lawsuit.
Pearson said the town does have professional liability insurance, and although the carrier believes the lawsuit is not covered under that policy, town officials and the town’s attorney believe otherwise.
Residents will have the option of authorizing selectmen to expend up to $5,000 to seek a second legal opinion on the insurance issue during the special town meeting at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 20, at the fire station.