ELLSWORTH — It will be at least March before a decision is made in former Police Chief Nate Young’s lawsuit against the town of Bar Harbor.
Testimony in the nonjury trial concluded last week in Hancock County Superior Court with Justice Bruce Mallonee noting it had been a “long and arduous” process and setting the schedule for the filing of briefs by Young’s attorneys, Gregg Frame and Ilse Teeters-Trumpy, and the town’s attorney, Mark Franco.
Frame and Teeters-Trumpy must summarize their case and arguments by Jan. 31. Franco has until March 6 to file a reply. Mallonee then will rule on the case.
Mallonee asked the attorneys to keep their briefs to the point.
“Brevity will not offend me,” he said.
The trial began Nov. 1 and was continued after all the witnesses had not been heard by the end of the day Nov. 2. The third and final day of testimony was Dec. 7.
Taking the stand last week were the five town councilors who voted to uphold then-Town Manager Dana Reed’s 2014 decision to fire Young: Ruth Eveland, Gary Friedmann, Peter St. Germain, David Bowden and Paul Paradis. They each testified that Young’s firing was warranted given the conclusions of an investigator hired by the town to look into an incident involving the police chief at the Town Hill Market as well as Young’s behavior while the investigation was underway and Young was on paid administrative leave.
The councilors who supported Young in his appeal of his termination, Robert Garland and Christopher Walsh, testified last month that they had reservations about the fairness of the process. One of their claims was that Eveland made statements that she had already made her mind up to support the town manager’s decision before hearing testimony and considering evidence presented at the February 2014 appeals hearing.
Presented with Garland and Walsh’s testimony, Eveland wasted no time in expressing her opinion of their comments.
“I think that’s absolute hogwash,” she said. “At that point, I didn’t have any of the information to make a decision.”
The other four councilors agreed that Eveland would not have made such a pronouncement and that they too kept an open mind throughout the process.
“It would have been hugely uncharacteristic for Ruth to make that statement,” Paradis said.
The others also testified they kept an open mind about the matter and only made their decisions to uphold Reed’s decision after reading the investigator’s report and other materials the morning of the appeals hearing and after listening to testimony during the hearing.
Bowden said it was the testimony that convinced him.
“It’s more the hearing that made up my mind,” he said. “One of the key things was [David] Kerns on the stand said he believed his officers were telling the truth.”
Kerns was then a sergeant in the department and a supervisor; he since has been promoted to lieutenant.
Young was fired in January 2014 after John Goodman, the investigator hired by the town, concluded that Young was intoxicated and acted inappropriately toward two of his officers when they arrived at the closed Town Hill Market on the night of Sept. 25, 2013, to check on a report of someone slumped over the steering wheel of a pickup truck.
On the stand last month, Young testified he had a “couple of glasses of wine” earlier that night and left his home in Mount Desert to avoid a domestic argument. After driving around, he parked at the market to mull over personal issues, he said.
Young’s attorneys argue that Young had not been subjected to any form of sobriety tests and officers had not come close enough in the four-minute encounter for the investigator to conclude that their client was under the influence that night.
Friedmann said he was “impressed” by both the thoroughness of Goodman’s investigation and the testimony of the two officers, Judson Cake and Larry Fickett, at the hearing. Young’s testimony he found “improbable.” Young’s actions toward his officers during the well-being check at the market were inappropriate, he said.
“He chased them off and drove away,” Friedmann said.
Franco has contended that the Town Hill incident was not the only reason Young was fired. Young violated department policies, and his failure to heed Reed’s directive not to contact town employees during the investigation amounted to insubordination, Franco has argued.
His contentions were supported during testimony last week.
When Eveland was asked by Frame if she would consider the town manager’s directive to be an order, she replied, “I would.”
Young also argues that the Town Council violated the state’s Freedom of Access Act by holding executive sessions where he was discussed and not given the opportunity to be in attendance. State law states that any person charged or under investigation must be permitted to be present in the closed session if they desire.
However, the councilors taking the stand last week testified that they had been guided through the process by the town attorney and by Reed, who, they said, took extra care to provide to councilors only the information on Young’s status that he legally could divulge.
“It was not appropriate for us to have details of the investigation, but we needed to know the steps along the way,” Eveland said.
After testimony ended, Teeters-Trumpy moved for admission of a letter from Brenda Kielty of the Maine Attorney General’s Office to the Town Council calling for extra training in the law surrounding executive sessions. The letter was prompted by a complaint from a citizen and sent after the appeals hearing. Kielty testified last month about the letter by video.
Franco objected, arguing the letter does not mention Young.
“We have no indication this letter has anything to do with Mr. Young,” he told the court.
Teeters-Trumpy countered, saying, “Our claim is there is improper use of executive sessions.” Enough concerns were raised that the attorney general had councilors do additional training, she said.
Mallonee agreed to admit the letter as evidence but noted that it “does not specifically address executive sessions discussed in the [appeals] hearing.”