WESTBROOK — The city has formally denied creating an adverse working environment for two top fire department officials who said in a lawsuit that Westbrook’s mayor retaliated against them for raising legal and safety concerns in their department.

Michael Sanphy

Westbrook Fire Chief Andrew Turcotte and Deputy Fire Chief Stephen Sloan filed a lawsuit in April alleging the city, specifically Mayor Mike Sanphy, subjected them to “adverse employment action by threatening” to fire them and subjecting them “to a hostile working environment.”

In a response filed last month, the city denies both claims. The response was filed by the city’s lawyer, John Wall, an attorney with Monaghan Leahy in Portland

Turcotte and Sloan argue that the city, specifically Sanphy, attempted to terminate their employment for airing concerns they had with the fire department, alleging a violation of the Maine Whistleblowers Protection Act.

City Administrator Jerre Bryant said if the case proceeds, the next step will be for both attorneys to file dispositions and schedule the matter for trial.

“We’ve made our effort and it is going through the system,” Bryant said, declining to comment further on the city’s response to the lawsuit or the lawsuit itself.

The city said its actions “were, at all times, based on legitimate, non-discriminatory and non-retaliatory reasons” and argues “the plaintiffs’ claims fail as a matter of law in that they cannot establish a causal relationship between the alleged adverse employment action and the alleged discriminatory actions.”

The response also says the city “at all times acted in good faith” and that the “alleged adverse employment were based on reasonable factors other than alleged whistleblowing activities.”

Wall declined to comment on the case.

“For obvious reasons, it is my policy not to comment on filings. They are intended to speak for themselves,” he said in an email to the American Journal.

The chiefs’ complaint, filed in Cumberland County Superior Court through Troubh Heisler attorney Jonathan Goodman, argues the chiefs “suffered damages, including but not limited to, loss of income, medical damages, physical and emotional pain and suffering.” The amount they are seeking was not specified.

Westbrook Fire Chief Andrew Turcotte

According to the complaint, the issue began last spring when in April and May 2017 Turcotte and Sloan voiced concern to city leaders regarding “safety issues as well as issues concerning policy violations.”

Of particular concern was a volunteer firefighter being paid to work as “an independent fire inspector for the city.” Turcotte and Sloan were concerned the individual, who is not named in the paperwork, “was potentially inspecting buildings on which he and/or his company had worked” and “had the possibility of incentives to make favorable findings with respect to buildings on which he and/or his company had worked.”

The chiefs also had concern with the city’s intention to convert the former firehouse at 41 Cumberland St. into space for police/fire volunteers and call company members. It has been suggested the building, which served as the city’s fire station from 1947 to 2004, be used as space for those groups, but Turcotte and Sloan felt doing so was “in violation of safety codes to a fire station.” The council ended up nixing the idea, but not before several fire/police volunteers resigned.

“Soon after Chief Turcotte and Deputy Chief Sloan raised their concerns, they learned from other city employees that, because the mayor had personal and/or political interests in the issues about which Chief Turcotte and Deputy Chief Sloan had raised concerns, the mayor was now seeking to terminate their employment and also that the mayor was undermining them with their subordinates, particularly with the city’s volunteer call company,” the lawsuit says.

The chiefs “made clear” to city staff “that they believed the mayor’s actions were retaliatory and they asked that it stop.” The suit claims Sanphy initially denied undermining Turcotte and Sloan, but “later admitted to doing so,” something the city denied in its response.

The city also denied a claim made by the chiefs that although City Administrator Jerre Bryant and former Human Resources Director Jennifer Ogden “each agrees that the mayor was retaliating against Chief Turcotte and Deputy Chief Sloan, nothing could be done about it as he was the city’s chief executive officer.”

Ogden was laid off by the city this summer after being placed on an extended administrative leave that city officials have refused to explain, citing condfidential personnel matters.

After again bringing up their concerns in June 2017, “restrictions were placed on Chief Turcotte and Deputy Chief Sloan that made it unduly difficult and stressful to perform their work duties,” the complaint says. It states Sanphy hindered their investigation into employee misconduct and altered “the deployment of department resources without approval of Chief Turcotte and Deputy Chief Sloan in violation of the city charter.”

The chiefs claim in July 2017, Sanphy told Turcotte “he intended to terminate the employment” of the chiefs and the only reason he hadn’t done so “was because he had been convinced not to do so by other people.” This claim was denied by the city in its response.

Turcotte and Sloan filed discrimination/retaliation complaints with the Maine Human Rights Commission, which in early February provided the chiefs with “separate right to sue letters.” Later that month, the suit says, the city allegedly informed Turcotte and Sloan that it had received “complaints from members of the call company that Chief Turcotte and Deputy Chief Sloan are retaliating against them for their involvement in the issue involving 41 Cumberland Street and other unrelated issues,” but that those complaints were “without merit.”

As mayor, Sanphy has the power to hire and fire city employees. According to the city charter, “the mayor’s executive authority shall include the power to organize the City into various Departments in order to promote the effective and orderly management of the City. This authority includes the power to hire and discharge employees in accordance with applicable laws, regulations and contracts.”

The chiefs, the city argues, “have no standing” to seek injunctive or declaratory relief and “demands judgment in its favor with regard to all claims of the plaintiff’s complaint.”

Michael Kelley can be reached at 781-3661 x 125 or [email protected] or on Twitter @mkelleynews.

Staff Writer Megan Doyle contributed to this article.

Read this story in the American Journal.

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