February 20, 2013

Old Orchard Beach rescinds firing of town official

The vote follows a debate on who has jurisdiction over the public works director's contract.

By Gillian Graham ggraham@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

OLD ORCHARD BEACH – The Town Council voted Tuesday to rescind a letter of termination issued to the public works director, who had been accused of threatening to shoot the town manager.

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Public Works Director Bill Robertson attends an Old Orchard Beach Town Council meeting Tuesday, where a debate touched on his alleged threat to shoot the town manager.

Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer

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Mark Pearson

Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer

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Public Works Director Bill Robertson allegedly threatened to shoot the town manager and claim it was an accident, according to a report prepared for town officials by a private investigator hired to investigate the incident. Town Manager Mark Pearson issued a letter of termination to Robertson earlier this month.

Robertson denies the threat, which was reported to town officials by Wastewater Superintendent Christopher White. Robertson claims he told White he wanted to “moon” Pearson, not shoot him. Robertson has not been charged in connection with the alleged threat. 

The allegation was not mentioned specifically in the Feb. 1 termination letter sent by Pearson to Robertson. Pearson said in the letter he was terminating Robertson's contract for public expressions of animosity toward the town manager and concerns about his job performance.

The Town Council agenda for Tuesday's meeting included an executive session on a personnel matter related to Robertson. The closed-door discussion failed to materialize when councilors Michael Coleman, Robert Quinn and Robin Dayton voted against moving into executive session.

Quinn said he wanted to consult with the town attorney to see if the council has jurisdiction in the matter. Coleman and Dayton said they do not feel the council has jurisdiction when it comes to Robertson's employment contract. They all questioned why the town attorney wasn't present at the meeting.

A heated discussion between the council and residents continued for more than an hour after the failed vote to move into executive session. The debate – in which councilors and residents alternately spoke over each other, yelled and applauded – culminated with a council vote to rescind Robertson's termination and remove him from administrative leave.

It was not immediately clear when Robertson would return to work.

Council Chairwoman Sharri MacDonald and councilors Laura Bolduc, Dana Furtado and Linda Mailhot voted in favor of keeping Robertson. Quinn, Coleman and Dayton abstained, saying the vote was illegal because it was not on the agenda and was not added at the beginning of the meeting.

"This vote is like it never happened. It was an illegal action," Coleman said before the meeting adjourned.

Furtado, who said the investigation into Robertson was a "witch hunt," welcomed Robertson back as public works director as many of the approximately 60 residents and town employees in council chambers applauded.

During the meeting, frequent mention was made of a confidential investigative report submitted by a private investigator hired at Pearson's request to look into an allegation that Robertson threatened to shoot the town manager in December.

According to the report, prepared by Thomas Santaguida of Dirigo Investigations & Security and obtained by the Portland Press Herald, White said Robertson made the threat against the town manager during a phone call about delivering salt to the wastewater treatment plant. When Pearson's name was mentioned, Robertson "seemed to become very agitated and said that Pearson was an 'odd duck' or a 'strange duck,' " White told the private investigator.

Robertson told White that Pearson had driven past the public works department, looked into Robertson's windows and drove away, according to the report.

"Robertson then added next time Pearson did this (he) might go get his gun. He then stated further, next time he might go get his gun and shoot him (Pearson) and say that he shot a crow," White told the private investigator, according to the report.

White told Santaguida the threat was made Dec. 13, the day before the Newtown, Conn., school shooting. He did not report the alleged threat to town officials until Dec. 20, when he expressed his concerns to a human resources employee during a town hall Christmas party.

Robertson was placed on administrative leave Dec. 21, the same day Pearson requested an independent investigation by a private investigator.

In an interview with the private investigator, Robertson repeatedly denied he threatened to shoot Pearson, according to the report.

Robertson said he spoke to state police about the alleged threat, but nothing came of the investigation.

In the interview with the private investigator, Robertson said Pearson was upset with him for not attending a training session on filling out employee evaluations.

Robertson, who owns a BB gun and a handgun, told the private investigator that he told White he would "moon" Pearson. He said he otherwise ignores Pearson, who is his direct supervisor.

During the Town Council meeting, residents alternately defended Robertson and chided councilors for not going into executive session. Neal Weinstein, Robertson's attorney, said councilors "shouldn't be vetting all of your issues in public."

"You should have the dignity and maturity to allow a personnel issue to go into executive session," Weinstein said.

Richard Hornbeck, an attorney for Pearson, said he did not think it was appropriate for the council to discuss the matter, whether in private or in a public hearing.

"The town manager is the chief executive officer of the town. As the chief executive officer, he does have the power to hire and terminate," he said.

After the meeting, Robertson said his employees -- many of whom were in the audience -- were looking forward to having him back at work. He said he will seek reimbursement from the town for the two weeks he did not receive pay.

Robertson also took issue with the private investigator's finding that he was not a certified engineer. He said he is certified in Massachusetts.

"That report is seriously flawed," Weinstein said.


Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:


Twitter: grahamgillian


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