PORTLAND – A judge on Monday ordered the city to release portions of a report on an internal investigation into a 2011 accident involving the city’s $3.2 million fireboat.

The accident occurred at sunset on Oct. 15, 2011, when the vessel struck a marked underwater hazard near Fort Gorges, causing more than $50,000 in damage. The boat was carrying two Portland firefighters and 12 civilian passengers at the time of the accident, which led to new city restrictions on use of the boat for nonemergency purposes.

Former Fire Chief Fred Lamontagne conducted an internal investigation that resulted in the suspension of the two firefighters involved, Capt. Christopher Goodall and firefighter Joseph Murphy.

After the firefighters appealed their suspensions, an arbitrator reduced their punishments and told the city to pay more than $1,100 in back wages to the men. Goodall, who invited friends and family members aboard and was responsible as the boat’s lookout, received $878 in back wages.

The city refused to release the report to the Portland Press Herald, which appealed to Cumberland County Superior Court.

Justice Thomas D. Warren ruled Monday the city could withhold four pages of Lamontagne’s investigative report that include confidential personnel-related information.

But the judge said the city must release the final “Conclusion” paragraph of that section of the report, as well as three pages of investigatory findings by Deputy Chief David Pendleton. Those sections are not exempt from the state’s open records law, Warren ruled.

Both the city and Portland Press Herald have 21 days to appeal the decision before the documents are scheduled to be released.

City Attorney Danielle West-Chuhta said the city is reviewing the decision and will soon decide whether to appeal.

Attorney Sigmund Schutz, who represents the Press Herald, said he considers the ruling a victory because the city cannot withhold LaMontagne’s entire report – it can withhold only those sections specifically deemed confidential by Maine’s Freedom of Access Act.

“Government acts through people,” Schutz said. “If we interpret the personnel exception to FOAA so broadly that anything involving potential government misconduct as confidential, basically you’ve gutted the public’s right to know.”

West-Chutha also said she considers the decision a victory, because the city is not obligated to provide the full report to the newspaper. “That’s what the city has been arguing all along,” she said.

The arbitrator issued a final disciplinary ruling Jan. 7, and the newspaper filed a Freedom of Access Act request for the report Jan. 9.

The city responded that the report would not be released on grounds that to do so would violate a state law that protects confidential personnel information. The newspaper appealed to the court on Jan. 18.

 

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

rbillings@mainetoday.com

Twitter: @randybillings