AUGUSTA — A human rights panel voted 5-0 Monday to support claims of a firefighter who says West Gardiner selectmen refused to appoint her as fire chief because she was a woman.
The state panel also found that she was subject to retaliation when she was demoted after talking to the media.
Vicki L. Dill, 41, currently a captain and training officer with the West Gardiner Volunteer Fire Department, had complained to the Maine Human Rights Commission that she was being treated differently than the men of the department.
Commission findings are not law, but may become grounds for lawsuits. Once the commission recommends a finding of reasonable ground, conciliation takes place.
Attorney Jonathan Brogan, who represented the town, said after the hearing the town is willing to try to resolve the dispute through a settlement. Dill’s attorney, Elly Burnett, said she and Dill would participate in conciliation efforts.
“Vicki wants to continue serving the town,” Burnett said. “It’s important these rifts be healed.”
Dill won the most votes — 11 — in the West Gardiner Firemen’s Association election for fire chief in 2009, but was not appointed to the post. A second candidate who earned nine votes was not appointed either.
Instead, selectmen opted for the third candidate, a former fire chief who got two votes, and then notified the department in January 2010 that they would choose the chief in the future.
At the time, Victor Goodwin Sr., chairman of the three selectmen, said the board took the action to halt what he termed “a popularity contest.”
Burnett told commissioners at Monday’s public hearing, “This was the first year selectmen broke with a 40-year tradition (of appointing the elected chief), and not surprisingly, it’s the first year a woman was nominated.”
Dill claimed she was discriminated against in 2009, 2010 and 2011, when she was not selected as chief.
Burnett also said Dill was demoted from the training officer’s role in April 2010, two months after telling a Kennebec Journal reporter she felt she was a victim of discrimination.
“She’s been in West Gardiner all her life, She’s the heart and soul of this department,” Burnett said.
Domini Pham, the commission investigator, recommended the panel find reasonable grounds to believe that the town subjected Dill “to different terms and conditions (promotion and pay) because of her sex,” and that the town retaliated against her for complaining about the discrimination.
Dill said Goodwin told her, “This has nothing to do with you being a girl,” after telling her she was not being appointed chief, according to Pham’s report.
Brogan argued against those findings.
“Nothing in the record shows there was gender discrimination,” Brogan said.
He said selectmen were concerned about an internal fire department dispute, so they made a “Solomon-like decision” in 2009 to opt for the third party.
In the other years, he said selectmen wanted to ensure that the fire chief was certified to drive firetrucks, a qualification that Dill lacked, and later, he said selectmen chose as chief a 27-year-old professional firefighter who had more education and experience than Dill.
However, commission Chairman Paul Vestal told him, “I think there are a lot of coincidences here.”
Betty Adams — 621-5631