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North Yarmouth firefighter's firing ignites employee rights dispute

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North Yarmouth firefighter's firing ignites employee rights dispute

NORTH YARMOUTH — Two former Fire-Rescue Department paramedics claim town officials have violated their civil rights.

Jeff Toorish, a lieutenant medic with the department, resigned Dec. 11. Deputy Chief of Emergency Medical Services Bill Young was fired the same day.

Toorish on Thursday said their departures came when disagreements escalated after the town banned firefighters from washing their private vehicles at the fire station.

According to a Dec. 8 letter of reprimand from Fire Chief Greg Payson to Young, and shared by Toorish, the former interim chief, Mike Robitaille, on Nov. 17 prohibited the car washes "due to a complaint to management from the public."

Town Manager Rosemary Roy on Thursday confirmed the town had received several complaints.

Not every community allows the washing of personal vehicles at fire stations, she said, explaining that being new to the town – she was hired in June – she did not know the town's policy, or if there was one.

With a new permanent fire chief not yet hired, Roy said she opted to put the matter on hold, until it could be reviewed with the new chief – Payson – to "come up with a solution to resolve the issue."

Roy said she has not had a chance to review the policy, and the matter is not at the top of her priorities.

But department morale began to drop, Toorish said, while the matter was left unresolved.

"Many of our people go directly to calls in their own vehicles," he said, adding it is his understanding there is a 30,000-gallon-per-month allotment of water that goes unused by the department.

"It's not like this was costing any money," he said. "Nobody is using heated water."

Toorish added "there was a lot of discontent about this, primarily because it felt like it was very disrespectful" of firefighters who use of their own vehicles.

Young emailed Roy on Nov. 30 about the situation, according to the reprimand letter, which criticized him for taking the dispute outside the department.

"As a Deputy Chief and/or an officer of this department this is a fine line," the letter said. "When you start talking of issues within the fire department with the general public, you are perceived to be talking as an official of the department."

The letter said employees cannot ignore the chain of command "unless authorized or an unexpected abnormal event occurs."

It added that the "issue of employees going around their department head is not (taken) lightly," noted a prior incident involving Young, and said a third would force "further action," including demotion or firing.

Toorish said the letter was not signed, and questioned whether it was Payson who wrote it. Neither Payson, Palmer, nor Roy would respond to that question.

Toorish said Young wrote to Roy not as a member of the department, but as a taxpaying resident of North Yarmouth.

"We don't become second-class citizens and give up our right to petition the government because we've become volunteer firefighters," Toorish said.

A meeting on Dec. 11 with firefighters and Roy failed to resolve anything, he said, which is when he resigned and left the meeting. Soon after, Toorish said, Young told him Roy had fired him.

Since Young's firing is a personnel matter, Roy and Palmer both said they could not comment on the issue.

Young said Dec. 17 that he was limited in what he could say under the advice of his lawyer. "It's not about the car washing. It never was about the car washing. It's about respect, and our civil rights," he said.

Amy Sneirson, executive director of the Maine Human Rights Commission, said via email Dec. 18 that the agency cannot comment on an employer's practices or policies, nor can it offer advice on the protocols of employers.

Sigmund Schutz, an attorney at Preti Flaherty in Portland who serves on the board of directors of the New England First Amendment Coalition, said in an email Dec. 18 that while what occurred might violate town protocol, "there is nothing in state law that would prevent an employee from contacting the Manager or Selectmen about this sort of issue."

Board of Selectmen Chairman Steve Palmer on Dec. 17 called the situation "a very unfortunate circumstance."

"It never needed to happen, had people just followed protocol, and waited for our fire chief to arrive," Palmer said. "... Give him a chance to work through the issue of car washing. No one gave him a chance."

Palmer said "this was an internal department issue. And it should have remained internal."

Roy called the loss of the department's two paramedics "unfortunate," but added that "residents of North Yarmouth should still feel that that service is there for them. We have a contract with Yarmouth, and they respond to many, many of our calls already. And that service shouldn't be interrupted."

The North Yarmouth Fire-Rescue website on Dec. 17 said the department is seeking call firefighters; basic, advanced and paramedic EMTs, and drivers/operators.

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.