York County Commissioners agreed Wednesday, June 23 to Sheriff William King’s request to fill the jail administrators role on an interim basis. The decision comes as Michael Vitiello, who was recently dismissed after 21 years, considers whether to appeal his firing to York County Superior Court. Tammy Wells Photo

ALFRED — The attorney for former York County Jail Administrator Michael Vitiello said his client is likely to appeal his dismissal to York County Superior Court.

York County commissioners on Friday, June 18 voted to accept Sheriff William King’s recommendation that Vitiello be dismissed, and unanimously reaffirmed that decision, Wednesday June 23 when they approved an 8-page, 38-point fact-finding document.

The prospect of an appeal came as commissioners took steps to engage a temporary jail administrator and to begin the process of hiring am assistant jail administrator for up to a year.

Vitiello, who had been York County Jail administrator for 21 years, was dismissed in connection with a lack of mask wearing at the jail prior to an Aug. 19 coronavirus outbreak. He had been on paid administrative leave for 10 months following the outbreak that began after a corrections officer who had attended a Millinocket wedding on Aug. 7 returned to work Aug. 13, though feeling unwell, and subsequently tested positive for COVID-19. The outbreak at the jail — one of the state’s largest during the pandemic — affected 48 inmates, 48 staff members and 16 staff household contacts, according to a report issued by a third-party investigator hired by county commissioners to delve into what had transpired.

Michael Vitiello Tammy Wells Photo

King said Vitiello had told him in March and in subsequent conversations that mask wearing would cause panic among inmates. Vitiello, for his part, said during a daylong hearing June 18 that his position on masks wearing progressed over time, and that he did not recall further conversations about masks causing alarm among inmates after the March discussion.

Vitiello’s attorney, Michael Waxman, said on June 23 that his client would make a firm decision on an appeal once he receives and reviews the finding of fact issued by county commissioners.

Vitiello will likely appeal, said Waxman, “because it was a crappy decision, a decision not supported by facts or the law and therefore improper.”

Vitiello had an unblemished personnel record. During the June 18 hearing, Waxman pointed out there was no evidence of progressive discipline and that his client’s actions did not warrant dismissal.

King told commissioners that he relied on Vitiello’s expertise in jail operations and had lost confidence in the jail administrator over the masking issue, as well as Vitiello’s responses to King over the matter.

“Instead of saying it was a bad thing, he turned it on me and said, ‘you knew, it’s your decision and your jail,’” said King at the hearing. “That entered into my decision to recommend termination, because he is my top guy in the jail.”

Waxman said he believed a loss of confidence was not just cause for termination.

In a May 17 letter to Vitiello following a predetermination hearing, King wrote that both parties agreed that the initial days of the COVID-19 pandemic were challenging and that the Center for Disease Control, York County Emergency Management Agency and the Maine Department of Corrections guidelines changed daily, and sometimes hourly.

“It was difficult to keep up. Also, I have always stated you did many good things like closing the lobby, enhanced cleaning and suspending visits and programming to address the COVID challenge and that I believed the York County Jail was in a good position to reduce the risk of an outbreak,” King wrote. “I even submitted your name for an award with the American Jail Association for outstanding leadership! But the masking issue, which was in fact crucial, left us vulnerable. There was simply no good explanation for discouraging and prohibiting the wearing of masks in the housing units. Instead of admitting and accepting that it was a challenging time and in retrospect we could have done things differently, you have chosen to deflect all the blame on me. I have said publicly that mask wearing may not have prevented the COVID outbreak, and I am not certain to this day it would have prevented it, but your refusal to assume any responsibility and your quickness to assess the blame on me is alarming. It further erodes my trust in your and our ability to work together in the future.”

As of May 5, 2020, inmates were required to wear masks while in the intake section of the facility, but not once they were assigned to the jail housing units, prior to the outbreak. According to a report issued by  the investigator hired by county commissioners to examine what had transpired, mask-wearing was prohibited for inmates other than in the intake area. Prior to the outbreak, there was some question whether masks were expressly prohibited among staff, but witnesses told the investigator there was a general understanding that corrections officers would not be wearing them.

On Wednesday, commissioners took steps to fill the administrator post on a short-term basis and agreed to begin the process of looking for an interim, as requested by the sheriff.

King said his requests, which were approved, will allow him to conduct a search for a full time jail administrator.

“This will give us the time to find the right candidate,” said King.

Joining the staff for up to eight weeks as temporary jail administrator will be Nathan Thayer, on loan from the Maine Department of Corrections. The county will also begin advertising for the full time interim who will work for up to a year.

Commissioners also approved King’s request for a part-time jail investigator, for a period not to exceed one year.

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