Board backs firing of Topsham assistant manager

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TOPSHAM — After a public meeting that lasted 3 1/2 hours, the Board of Selectmen voted unanimously Wednesday night to uphold the dismissal of former Assistant Town Manager Paul Caruso.

An executive session had been scheduled to hear Caruso’s appeal, but he exercised his right to discuss the matter in public.

After the decision, Caruso’s attorney, Graydon Stevens, said he was not sure if Caruso will appeal to Superior Court. He said he and Caruso would have to discuss the matter.

Caruso, 51, whose duties included tax collector and human resources director, was hired in April 2001 and served his last day Dec. 8, 2010. He was fired by former Town Manager James Ashe a few weeks before Ashe resigned from his job.

Caruso’s dismissal was the result of an incident that occurred Nov. 4, 2010, when he delivered a memo to Police Department receptionist Barbara Hall. She lodged a complaint against him after he allegedly tried to take it from her when she would not give it back.

Caruso’s memo was a response to one co-written by Hall and sent to Emergency Medical Services Director Mike Labbe. They complained that employees working in the police and fire/rescue reception areas were subjected to blasts of cold wind when the doors open during the winter and asked if anything could be done to mitigate the problem.

In Caruso’s response to Hall, which he said he wrote in a spirit of humorous communication he had enjoyed with her, he recommended remedies including “man up,” wear warmer clothing, find employment with an organization with a heated lobby, and finally, “eat (expletive)” and bark at the moon.

Young, one of a handful of people who witnessed part of the encounter between Hall and Caruso, said he could hear commotion from the reception area and found Caruso trying to retrieve the memo. Young said he told Caruso to “knock it off” and that Hall said Caruso was hurting her and grabbing her crotch.

“I saw him trying to get the piece of paper that she was sitting on,” he said.

Young noted that he thought the two people were just joking around. After a pause, when Caruso tried again to get the memo, Young said he intervened by getting between Hall and Caruso, who was forced out into a hallway.

Young said he later told Hall that if he had thought she was actually being hurt, he would have stepped in immediately.

The day after the incident, Young said he went to Ashe’s office to discuss Hall’s complaint. Ashe had left for the weekend and was heading out of state, and Young said he spoke with Caruso and told him he may want to give Ashe a heads up about the situation.

Young said Caruso told him, “‘If I’m going down, I’m not going to be the only one.'”

Ashe said that when he met with Caruso to discuss the incident, Caruso showed “utterly no remorse.” Caruso admitted the memo was a poor decision, but claimed Hall had been insubordinate in not giving it back to him, Ashe said.

“Frankly, I was just a little disturbed that someone who is the assistant manager … the second in command of all of the employees,” and whose responsibilities include human resources, Ashe said, “… would even think that it was appropriate to write this memo, and then deliver it and then physically try to get it back.”

Caruso told the Board of Selectmen that he intended the memo as a joke, but now wished he had not written it. He said the memo was only meant for Hall, who he had considered a friend. He said she laughed at the memo, and that he wanted it back so that it would not be circulated.

Caruso did not deny touching her at some point during the confrontation, but he denied that he touched her crotch. He agreed that the memo and his attempt to get it back were inappropriate, but said “I didn’t think it warranted being fired; I just thought, maybe a reprimand.”

The Board of Selectmen did not question Hall during Wednesday’s meeting.

Ashe said he and Caruso had “a very good relationship,” and that he tried to find an alternative to firing the colleague he had worked with for three years.

“But how are you ever going to have anybody ever go to him for an harassment issue?,” Ashe asked, adding later that he himself should have been fired “if I allowed this to go on with just a reprimand.”

Selectmen Ron Riendeau and Jim Trusiani said the discussion about finding another assistant manager would begin after Cornell Knight begins as manager on Feb. 1.

Town Planner Rich Roedner and other department heads are handling interim management duties.

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net.

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A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.