From Magic City Morning Star|
For the second time, Mary Walsh and her attorney A.J. Greif proved that former Millinocket town councilor Matthew A. Polstein used his position to have her fired after he learned that Mary had contacted the state about safety concerns with his state-subsidized grooming of snowmobile trails.
Greif told the jury in his closing arguments that Matt Polstein "was born on third base and tells people that he hit a triple," pointing out that Polstein was not a "self-made man" as he had stated earlier in the day, but that his parents had paid for his college education as well as his start-up costs for his whitewater rafting business.
Greif also elicited from Polstein that, although he had testified that he was in college for 3 1/2 years, he had actually inflated that from 2 1/2 years. The attorney pointed out to the jury that Polstein had a habit of making himself look good at the expense of the truth.
Mary, who was metaphorically born in the dugout, hit a home run, despite the fact that the third-baseman tried to trip her as she rounded the bases.
Walsh, the administrator of the state grants which Polstein was given for trail grooming, testified that she had repeatedly talked to him about problems with the grooming. She spoke to the town manager and eventually went to Scott Ramsey, the state trails administrator after the safety hazards went unaddressed.
In late February, 2005, Walsh and three friends had lunch in a local restaurant where she discussed her dilemma, after which Polstein, sent her an email suggesting that she "be careful" about having political discussions in public, specifying the restaurant in which she had eaten that afternoon and warning that "the walls have ears." Mary indicated at the time that she considered the email a "veiled threat" against her job and herself.
Several days later, in early March 2005, Walsh and her friends were leaving the same restaurant after lunch when Polstein sped into the parking lot, pinning Walsh's car in and preventing her from leaving. He then loudly berated her in the parking lot, scaring her friends and humiliating Walsh.
Polstein testified that he was not aware of Walsh's communication with Ramsey until after the vote, but later contradicted himself when he admitted that he was aware of the complaint before the second restaurant incident, which was nearly three months before the June 2005 vote.
Polstein testified that he was not angry at Mary, despite the fact that he also testified that he thought her complaint was "uncalled for," "bogus," "politically motivated," and that she was trying to "undermine [Polstein's] credibility." Attorney Greif made clear the fact that the two statements did not line up with the truth.
Council Meeting and Firing
At the June 23, 2005 Millinocket town council meeting, after a near-record turnout of citizens speaking on the issue, the council, led by Councilor Polstein, voted to adopt a tri-town Recreation Department consolidation proposal which left Walsh jobless.
At that meeting, twelve citizens spoke out against the proposed consolidation, citing Mary's relationship with the children of Millinocket, the fact that she did a good job, and the idea that by passing the motion, the Council would be creating yet another jobless person in the town of Millinocket. One person, Matt Polstein's spouse Wendy Polstein, did not speak out against the measure, but did not speak out in favor of it either. She simply stated that she was confused and wanted clarification.
The two employees of the newly-formed tri-town department were then given raises, with Frank Clukey getting an $11,000 raise and Jody Nelson getting an approximate $6,000 raise, leading to questions in court about how an arrangement which was touted as "money-saving" was actually one where an amount nearly equalling Mary's salary was then spent. Adding to that question was the fact that Walsh had saved between $3,000 and $5,000 a year while she was the director and the fact that the new arrangement would cost an additional $5,000 a year more than it was before the deal was consummated.
Mary's attorney asserted that Matt Polstein should have recused himself from the June 23 vote due to a conflict which was evident by the anger which he continued to show toward her for notifying the state and, according to Polstein, associating with people he did not like.
Had Polstein recused himself, the consolidation proposal would have died and Mary would have maintained her job.
Former Councilors Paul and Nelson
Former Millinocket Town Councilor Wally Paul, who voted for the consolidation, was unable to remember much and could not identify the managers report on the consolidation as being that report. He eventually granted that that same report indicated that the consolidation would result in a net loss of town money rather than a savings.
Former Millinocket Town Councilor David Nelson was flown to Maine from Wisconsin at the expense of the defendants and testified that he was generally in favor of consolidation in whatever form it was offered. Attorney Greif asked about Nelson's votes regarding solid waste consolidation and the police department consolidation, and the former councilor seemed surprised to learn that he had voted against both. He seemed even more surprised to learn that the only consolidation vote he had ever affirmed was the Recreation Department one.
Verdict and Award
There were two questions that the 9-member jury had to rule on.
The first was whether the town of Millinocket, and Matt Polstein specifically, fired her in violation of the Maine whistle-blowers laws. The jury voted 7 to 2 that she did indeed qualify as a whistle-blower in this instance, in that she had reported a safety issue to the state and that but for that act, she would not have lost her job.
The second was conditional: If the answer to the first question is yes, how much money in damages should she be awarded. The jury voted 8 to 1 to award her damages of $30,000.
Now the judge will use a formula to assess how much she had lost in wages and other costs since the inappropriate firing in 2005.
Asked how she felt about the verdict, Mary said, "It's a really good feeling when the truth finally does prevail and the bullies don't win."
Matt Polstein was not available for comment, and Town Manager Eugene Conlogue declined to comment inasmuch as the matter is still under litigation.
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