WESTBROOK — One of two female firefighters whose complaints of sexual harassment led to the firing of several top officials in the Westbrook Fire and Rescue Department will return to work Monday.

Lisa Theberge has been on paid administrative leave for almost two years. Her return follows the department’s completion of a sexual-harassment training and education program.

A lawsuit that the women brought against the city is still pending.

Fire Chief Michael Pardue said Thursday that Theberge will spend the first two weeks re-acclimating to the equipment and the department’s policies and procedures. He said Theberge will work full time and complete the sexual-harassment training.

“This way, we are all built on the same foundation and knowledge base going forward,” Pardue said. “We are all held to the same standards and expectations, and that is very important from a position of leadership.”

Rebecca Webber, an attorney with Linnell, Choate and Webber in Lewiston who represents Theberge and Kathy Rogers, said in a statement that Theberge is looking forward to returning to work.

Webber said Rogers remains on leave, and declined to comment on the pending lawsuit.

Pardue and Deputy Fire Chief Sandra Hillsgrove were hired in March to run the department, in response to a rash of firings, resignations and discipline involving top administrators and rank-and-file firefighters.

Theberge and Rogers filed a sexual-harassment complaint against the department with the Maine Human Rights Commission in 2008. They alleged about 150 incidents of sexual harassment involving 20 firefighters.

Seven firefighters were disciplined in December 2008 for inappropriate actions and language in the workplace, or for failing to address the issues that contributed to a hostile work environment.

However, Theberge and Rogers contended that the city had failed to address the problem. In October, they sued the department, City Administrator Jerre Bryant and Mayor Bruce Chuluda.

In January, Westbrook’s new mayor, Colleen Hilton, announced in her inauguration speech that Fire Chief Daniel Brock would not be reappointed. Deputy Fire Chief Thaddeus Soltys, who had been accused of sexual harassment, was laid off in what was described as a budgetary move.

Brock’s predecessor, Gary Littlefield, announced his resignation in October 2008, after being asked to step down by Chuluda.

The city also hired a consulting firm, the Center for Preventing Hate, for $40,000 to evaluate the department and train its employees in sexual-harassment awareness. The program ended this month.

Steve Wessler, the founder of the consulting firm, said the training gave fire and rescue workers an understanding of the impact of bias and harassment. He said it gave workers strategies and skills to address conflict. Wessler said he will follow up with the department in August.

“I thought the trainings went extremely well,” Wessler said. “There was a lot of hard work in those sessions. The department is ready to move on and they feel it’s time to pull together. Part of that moving on is having the women back.”

Theberge will return to a department that appears far different from the one she left. Pardue said its members are becoming more visible to the residents they serve, getting out into the community, volunteering at events and visiting schools.

Pardue said the training has empowered members to take responsibility for the culture and advancement of the organization. He said the department is moving forward.

“The department has been painted with a very broad brush for the alleged actions of a few,” Pardue said. “I think unfairly so. This department is filled with highly skilled, very professional, and proper acting personnel.”

 

Staff Writer Melanie Creamer can be contacted at 791-6361 or at:

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