March 27, 2007

Highway Department of Porn?

Our Mess Called Somerset

What a mess in Somerset yesterday.

A woman who used to work for the highway department was awarded 2.8 million dollars when a jury decided the town needed to be sent a harsh message for mismanaging the sexually harassing conduct of Highway Department employees.

If you hadn't heard this story, then you'd be in the same category as a lot of people. As far as I know, this story didn't appear in the newspaper until today. We got an earful from Keri's show. I expect that many Somerset residents listened to the story as I did. It was difficult to keep our jaws off the floor.

Kim Pelletier told the jury about widespread outrageous behavior ranging from exposure to explicit material to documented discrimination in work assignments.

The list reads like a manual for sexual harassment. Porn magazines in all of the highway department trucks. Groping buttocks. Groping breasts. Verbal abuse. Sexual discrimination in work assignments. And a regular "afternoon matinee" of porn movies every day between 3 and 3:30 PM.

The Town mounted no credible defense of the behavior. Comments like "well, it didn't seem to bother her" amount to an admission that this was the way the highway department did business. Ouch. Ms. Pelletier (who is gay) was told that she envied the "forbidden fruit" that the men had. The excuse that the jury heard? It was a harmless biblical reference. I guess I've been missing something when I read the Bible.

Town Meeting, Then and Now

There was a a special town meeting last night in Somerset. This matter wasn't on the agenda, and so it couldn't be discussed. However, it wasn't far from the minds of the citizens who were present. That was clear from bits of scattered conversation, and people yelling things like "time to go, John!" -- referring to John McAuliffe, the town administrator.

A vocal town faction has been opposed to Mr. McAuliffe for years, but the reasons were never really clear to me. At last year's regular town meeting there was an effort to get rid of the man which failed when the heads of all the departments showed up in uniform to stand shoulder to shoulder in support of the man. It made an impressive (some described it as "intimidating") display to see fire, police, and other town workers showing such support. The effort against the administrator was defeated as we citizens proudly supported all the department heads and reflected their loyalty with our voice vote... and then a stand up vote.

From the highway department story:

"What happened today didn't have to happen. We tried to resolve this amicably but McAuliffe wanted none of it," said [Attorney for Ms. Pelletier] Fingliss. "There was a time when all she would have taken was an apology or even a transfer, but McAuliffe said no. You have to ask yourself where the responsibility starts in the town. It starts with him (McAuliffe)."

Reached at his office late Monday afternoon, McAuliffe, a nine-year town administrator who recently received a $10,500 raise from the Board of Selectmen, said he "certainly disagreed" with the verdict, but offered little else.

I wonder if other Somerset residents feel, as I do, that we've had the wool pulled over our eyes. This case was filed in 2003 for events which occurred before Ms. Pelletier left her job in 2000. Instances of the behavior go back as far as 1987!

Questions and Consequences

I have a number of questions. What did the Town Administrator do about this situation, and why didn't he do more? Since the town's defense as I understand it was tantamount to an admission that these events occurred (witnesses corroborated stories about the availability of porn at the highway department), who is going to be held responsible?

Why did certain selectmen put a rush on a raise for the town administrator just this month, knowing that this case was pending? The picture of these selectmen in the local paper proudly giving Mr. McAuliffe his raise is still fresh in my mind, and in the mind of many other town residents, I imagine.

And I want to know more about the behavior of the people more directly in charge at the Highway Department - and I want to hear what the selectmen are going to do to punish those responsible and make sure nothing like this happens again. Apart from the fact that the situation is deplorable, the town now has to pay nearly 3 million dollars that we can't spare. We had heated debates last night over a million or so to fix leaky roofs in the schools. We voted down $7,500 to fix up the Pierce Beach snack concession. We had painfully drawn out analysis over a no-brainer measure to have a $1,000 defibrillator available at the beach for emergencies. Yet the Town Administrator (made aware of the problem long ago) decided to manage the Highway Department situation in a way that has exposed the town to liability exceeding any of what we voted on. I call that grounds for dismissal.

I'd like to see this organization cleansed from the bottom up; the entire chain of command. Supervisor and Manager alike. And then I want to see the selectmen provide some explanations of their own behavior and what they're going to do now to ensure a workplace free of both porn and bullying for town employees.

Heads need to roll, and soon. This woman couldn't get a freaking apology?? And here's a suggestion for the selectmen. If 3:00 to 3:30 PM was porn time in the highway department, those involved owe the town some money back. Get on that. We're looking at 2.8 million. The town knew this was going on, it behooves them to get some of that wasted town money back from people who were paid to watch porn. The ball is in your court, people.

Fun calculation for homework: How much per taxpayer is this costing the town?

Posted by James at March 27, 2007 11:06 AM
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$2,800,000 divided by 19,000 = $147.38 per person

Posted by: at March 27, 2007 12:43 PM

I wasn't able to find the number of taxpaying citizens. I know there are about 19,000 residents, but some of those don't pay taxes.

But I guess we can say it's at least $140.

Posted by: James at March 27, 2007 12:50 PM

I can certainly cough up $140 if it means those pigs lose their jobs, but I'll be angry if they don't.

They are *weird* at the highway department. It's not a comfortable place to visit, and I had no idea this was going on. I won't be going back alone!

Posted by: Maggie at March 27, 2007 1:09 PM

Who reads porn magazines anymore? Don't they have wifi?

Posted by: Mike at March 27, 2007 1:28 PM

Apparently they don't have wifi in the trucks.

The movies were reserved for afternoons at 3:00PM. And since this goes back to the time we were in high school, I think some non-internet based technology was probably involved somewhere along the line.

Posted by: James at March 27, 2007 1:56 PM

I'm so stunned by this story, I can not formulate a coherent thought.

Scheduled daily porn? Are you kidding? "Paging Hugh."

Posted by: Patti M. at March 27, 2007 1:57 PM

Yeah, I wasn't serious.

You'd think some heads would roll if lax management cost the city a few million dollars in damages. But it sounds like you are among the few residents bothered by it.

Posted by: Mike at March 27, 2007 2:01 PM

I knew you weren't serious, but I was wondering if we were going to see an article at a future town meeting regarding whether we should add internet access to the trucks.

Word of this is just getting our recently -- and Keri was reporting it even before the verdict. People were pissed off at town meeting last night. I imagine the first repercussions will come quickly, but I hope they are also thorough in their reach.

Posted by: James at March 27, 2007 2:52 PM

I only heard a little of Mike's show this morning, but nobody called in to support the highway department!!

Posted by: Maggie at March 27, 2007 4:31 PM

Yeah. I can imagine how that call would go. And every time I imagine it, I hear it in Homer Simpson's voice. "Well, sure, your honor, it sounds bad. But you have to remember we were all very drunk at the time."

Posted by: briwei at March 27, 2007 4:38 PM

They might have more support if the roads in Somerset (I'm thinking specifically of SR-103) weren't full of potholes and prone to flooding.

Posted by: Julie at March 27, 2007 4:44 PM

To be fair, 103 is a state road, and we've been fighting with the state to get that road fixed for a long while now.

Posted by: James at March 27, 2007 5:11 PM

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