The Maine Human Rights Commission this week found reasonable grounds to believe that a longtime Portland ferry boat captain was discriminated against by his employer, Casco Bay Island Transit District, after he voiced concerns about safety.

John Tracy, a 29-year employee of the company, which operates passenger boats throughout Casco Bay, filed the complaint in December.

In it, he alleged that in July 2012, his operations manager, Nicholas Mavodones Jr. – who also is an at-large Portland city councilor and former mayor – cornered him on a boat and threatened him, ultimately leading to a two-week suspension for Tracy.

Mavodones has offered a different version of the events. He claimed Tracy assaulted him and that was the basis for the suspension.

In a decision issued Monday, the Maine Human Rights Commission ruled in Tracy’s favor, concluding that he “demonstrated that (Mavodones) set this chain of events in motion because of (Tracy’s) protected activity,” and that “(Tracy’s) suspension would not have occurred but for his protected activity.”

The protected activity in this case was safety concerns lodged by Tracy, namely that Casco Bay Island Transit District employees had been violating federal rules that limit crew members to working no more than 12 hours in any given 24-hour period.

Tracy said Wednesday that he was happy about the commission’s ruling, but he declined to talk about the matter further on the advice of his attorney.

Mavadones referred all comments to Melissa Hewey, an attorney representing Casco Bay Island Transit District. Hewey said it was important to note that the commission’s decision is not legal or binding.

“Their decision concludes that this incident could have happened, not that it did happen,” she said.

The transit district is a quasi-municipal nonprofit owned by residents of the six inhabited islands in Casco Bay. It is governed by a board of directors elected by island residents. The board’s chairman, Patrick Flynn, could not be reached for comment Thursday.

The 11-page investigator’s report by Barbara Lelli of the Maine Human Rights Commission details the version of events as told by Tracy and Mavodones.

According to Tracy, he first voiced concerns about violations of the “12-hour rule” in a June 26 email to Mavodones, the operations manager, who sent an email to all captains the next day reminding them of the rule but did nothing else.

Six days later, on July 3, Tracy reported two violations to Mavodones but got no response. On July 6, he then observed that a member of his crew was assigned to work a shift that would result in another violation of the 12-hour rule.

At that point, Tracy said he decided to avoid talking to Mavodones about his concerns. When the two men crossed paths that day, Tracy told Mavodones he was done talking to him. Tracy then walked to his vessel.

Mavodones followed Tracy and found him in the galley of the boat near the engine room. Tracy said he didn’t want to talk to Mavodones. He claimed Mavodones said, “If you want to play (expletive) games, I can play (expletive) games.”

Tracy said at that point he was afraid and attempted to leave the area. He brushed by Mavodones, who tripped over a stack of chairs.

Tracy said he left and Mavodones chased after him, shouting, “You can keep on going ’cause I’m replacing you,” according to the complaint.

Tracy went to look for general manager Henry Berg, who was not in the office. He then went to wait in his car and then got a phone call from union president Gene Willard, who told him he had been suspended.

Mavodones’ version of the incident is slightly different. He said he tried saying hello to Tracy, who replied, “I’m done talking to you,” and walked off before Mavodones could respond.

Mavodones said he followed Tracy to his vessel to ask him what he meant. They talked briefly about Tracy’s safety concern, and Tracy said that he would talk only with Berg.

Mavodones said he then took a step toward Tracy and said, “Are you sure you want to start playing these (expletive) games again.”

Mavodones said Tracy then pushed Mavodones, causing him to fall backwards against some chairs.

Tracy left the area and Mavodones yelled to him, “You’re out of here. You’re going home.”

Mavodones later told Berg and other employees that Tracy had assaulted him.

Berg conducted a brief investigation of the incident and agreed with Mavodones, although he concluded that Mavodones could have handled the situation better.

Hewey, the district’s lawyer, said Tracy had an opportunity to appeal his suspension through arbitration, as outlined in his union’s collective bargaining agreement, but did not. She also disputed several facts outlined in the commission’s report.

Based on the commission’s decision this week, the two sides are asked to conciliate, or settle the dispute. The process is confidential unless all parties agree to make it public.

Tracy also has the option of bringing the matter to court, but declined to say whether he plans to do so.

There has historically been tension between boat captains and management at Casco Bay Lines. In 2006, longtime manager Patrick Christian stepped down on the same day an independent investigator issued a report detailing longstanding unresolved conflicts. 

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

erussell@pressherald.com

Twitter: @PPHEricRussell