Public Works, Police Disputes Roil Thetford Town Hall
Thetford — Town Hall is embroiled in internal controversy, with a former public works employee claiming he was fired after testifying against his supervisor in a sexual harassment complaint brought by the town treasurer, and the town’s new police union bringing a unfair labor complaint after the police chief chided a patrol officer in two emails and told him he was “destroying” the department.
Floyd Cadwell, the former public works employee, alleges in a lawsuit filed last month in Orange Superior Court that the town retaliated against him after he helped disclose “derogatory, profane, gender-based” statements that his boss, Scott Knowlton, director of the Department of Public Works, allegedly made about Town Treasurer Jill Graff and other female employees in Town Hall.
Cadwell also asserts that he was fired without “just cause” and alleges that he was not given a pre-termination hearing, which is offered in the town’s personnel policy.
Cadwell, who operated heavy equipment and maintained town roads, was hired by the town in July 2011. A year later, in July 2012, the town hired Knowlton as the new public works director. According to the lawsuit, it didn’t take long before Knowlton and Cadwell were at odds.
Cadwell said he differed with Knowlton over issues ranging from Cadwell’s objection to co-workers allegedly being allowed to smoke in DPW trucks to what he asserts was “false information” Knowlton provided on a worker’s time card. The town has denied wrongdoing.
Cadwell asserts he repeatedly brought concerns about Knowlton to the Selectboard. After Cadwell lodged complaints in December 2012, he alleges that Knowlton confronted him at work and said, “The board is sick of you bringing complaints to it and you had better stop.”
The friction came to a head early this year when, Cadwell’s lawsuit alleges, Knowlton made “derogatory” and “profane” statements about the town’s female employees.
Cadwell asserted that he “more than once” heard Knowlton say “those dumb b------ don’t know what the f--- they are doing” and that the DPW director, after a meeting with Graff in February, allegedly referred to her as a “dumb f------ c---” in front of Cadwell and other DPW workers.
The lawsuit reports that Cadwell “feared” disclosing Knowlton’s behavior to the Selectboard, so he told Graff about the offensive statements.
Cadwell declined to comment and referred questions to his attorney, Stefan Ricci, who also declined to comment. Knowlton did not return requests for comment. The town has denied Cadwell’s assertions and is contesting the lawsuit. Selectboard Chairman Donn Downey, for example, said the time card issue involved allowing workers to leave early if they worked through their lunch break.
Graff confirmed in an interview last week that she filed a sexual harassment complaint with the Selectboard after hearing about the alleged statements. She added that she never confronted Knowlton directly and said she was told by Cadwell that the statements were made about women who work in Town Hall.
Graff previously worked in human resources for 18 years and said she felt she knew what was said was against town policy and she could bring the incident to the Selectboard. “I felt that was something I could not let go,” Graff said.
Following Graff’s sexual harassment complaint, Downey asked Cadwell to provide a statement about Knowlton’s alleged derogatory statements, and Cadwell complied, according to the lawsuit. Shortly thereafter, Knowlton recommended that the Selectboard suspend Cadwell, according to the lawsuit.
On Feb. 28, the Selectboard told Cadwell it was suspending him for 10 days without pay. Downey said in an interview last week that Cadwell was suspended because of “job performance concerns.”
Then in late March, Cadwell bumped and damaged a mailbox post while grading a road, according to the lawsuit. When Cadwell returned to the public works garage that afternoon, Knowlton asked if he had anything to report, and Cadwell said no. The lawsuit’s narrative says Cadwell later remembered that he had bumped a mailbox and reported it to the assistant supervisor and then informed Knowlton of the incident during his next shift.
Cadwell alleges that even though he reported the damage, Knowlton “falsely, and with malice and retaliatory intent” said Cadwell failed to disclose and attempted to conceal the damage to the mailbox and recommended that the Selectboard fire Cadwell.
The Selectboard notified Cadwell it was starting a pre-termination process, according to the lawsuit. The town’s personnel policy manual says employees can have a pre-termination hearing. Cadwell alleges that he did not receive a pre-termination hearing and that the Selectboard improperly fired him in April. Cadwell was earning $17.06 an hour.
The lawsuit also alleges that the town violated a Vermont statute that forbids employers from discriminating against an employee who complains about discriminatory acts, citing Graff’s sexual harassment complaint.
The town filed a response in court on Aug. 29, denying Cadwell’s assertions, saying “defendants acted in good faith” and the “cause for dismissal was just.”
In an interview last week, Downey said a pre-termination hearing was offered, but Cadwell did not contact him to schedule a hearing date.
Downey said Cadwell’s firing was due to a “pattern of performance issues that weren’t fixed after numerous opportunities to change behavior,” but declined to provide details. “Any claim that Mr. Knowlton made about (Cadwell’s) performance was fully investigated by the Selectboard, and we found them not to be false,” Downey said in an interview last week.
The town’s attorney, Brian Monaghan, wouldn’t discuss the details of Cadwell’s termination. “The town’s position is that it terminated Mr. Cadwell for appropriate and legally justifiable reasons, “ Monaghan said.
Neither Downey nor Monaghan would comment on Graff’s sexual harassment complaint, except to confirm that one was filed.
Knowlton is still employed with the town, Downey said, and has not faced any disciplinary action.
The town has also been dealing with an unfair labor complaint filed by Thetford’s police union, which stems from a complaint by Stuart Rogers, one of three members of Thetford’s police department. The union alleges that Police Chief Jim Lanctot refused to talk with Rogers, a patrol officer, and that the chief accused him of “destroying my police department.”
The police union in Thetford is fairly new. A union contract didn’t take effect until June 1, and Thetford’s two full-time officers are now part of the New England Police Benevolent Association. The chief is not a member.
The police union filed an unfair labor complaint against the town in late June through the Vermont Labor Relations Board, citing two emails that Lanctot wrote to Rogers. In one, sent by Lanctot on June 19, the chief wrote: “You are to stay out of my office while I’m in here. If there will be any conversation between you and I, you should contact your union and set up a meeting. This is an order from now on. If you need anything otherwise, you may contact your direct supervisor, Sgt. Tweedie. I am done talking with you.”
Seven hours later on June 19, Lanctot emailed Rogers and said to ignore his previous order and that all issues should still go through the chief. He continued: “I am not happy and don’t understand why you are destroying my police department. I support better wages and better retirement. I don’t know why you felt the need to turn this into an uncomfortable working environment.”
The complaint alleges that the town acted with animosity toward the union.
The town filed a response with the Labor Relations Board on Aug. 5, arguing that the union “jumped the gun” because the union’s grievance procedure requires the union to file complaints with Lanctot and the Selectboard before filing a complaint with the state board. The town has asked the labor board to dismiss the complaint so the parties can work out the grievances together.
The labor relations board still needs to investigate the complaint to decide if a hearing should be scheduled, said Timothy Noonan, the board’s executive director. If the complaint is dismissed, then a written explanation of the dismissal will be provided to the town.
In the meantime, the Selectboard investigated the complaint on its own and wrote a warning letter to Lanctot.
Downey, the Selectboard chairman, said the letter was a “formal address of the behavior we want to have change.”
“Our emphasis was on creating productive communication between management and employees,” Downey said.
Lanctot hired a lawyer, Charles Merriman, and the two attended a Selectboard meeting on July 29. Merriman said he and Lanctot left the meeting feeling that the Selectboard supported the chief. “The biggest concern was whether it would have a deleterious effect on how the Selectboard views the chief,” Merriman said. “It turns out the Selectboard has been very supportive of the chief.”
Downey agreed, saying the Selectboard and the chief have come to an understanding, and he has had productive conversations with the chief since the issue came up.
Merriman called the police union’s allegations “silly.”
“Let’s be adults here. I don’t see anything offensive or oppressive in the statement,” Merriman said of Lanctot’s emails. “It’s just not a big deal.”
Lanctot declined to comment about the complaint and referred all comment to Merriman. Rogers declined to comment and referred all questions to the union.
Rogers is the son of Selectman Stuart Rogers, who has recused himself from all Selectboard discussions dealing with the police department. The elder Rogers declined comment last week.
Downey said he hopes the unfair labor complaint will be dismissed and town officials can put that behind them. But the town will likely be dealing with the public works lawsuit for some time.
“I think the amount of unrest is probably pretty typical,” Downey said. “It just happens to be in the two highest departments. And the union, that’s new ground for us. That’s new and challenging.”
Sarah Brubeck can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3223.