AUBURN — A lawsuit filed Thursday by Mechanic Falls Town Manager Zakk Maher claims the Town Council failed to follow state open-meeting laws in its attempt to remove him from his job, and he is asking the court to order the town to disclose a collection of documents and other material related to his employment and the decision to terminate him.

The lawsuit, filed in Androscoggin County Superior Court by Maher’s attorney, Adam Lee, of Auburn, claims the council failed to follow the state’s open-meeting law after a closed-door session on June 17, and on at least one other occasion, and that the town has not adequately informed Maher why he is being dismissed.

“We need to find out why they want to terminate him,” Lee said Thursday.

Once Maher has the information, his attorney said, he can determine how best to challenge the decision in a public hearing he intends to request.

Maher was initially terminated by a majority vote of the council on June 17. He was given a letter that day from Chairwoman Cathy Fifield that said “we regret to inform you,” that “we will be ending your term of employment with us” immediately “due to the lack of communication, follow-through and fit with the town.”

When the council’s process was challenged the following week — on June 25 — councilors issued an as-yet publicly undisclosed second letter to Maher required by the town’s charter, called a preliminary resolution, Lee said.

Details that would explain the council’s concerns about Maher remain secret despite state law that Lee said requires that the entire removal process be a public process.

In her letter, Fifield informed Maher that he has been placed on paid administrative leave until after his hearing is completed, and that he is entitled to be paid 14 weeks of salary in severance, in accordance with his contract.

The council apparently plans to discuss the attempted firing again next month.

Maher, who was given a four-year contract last summer, wants to return to the job, Lee said.

The interim town manager, Fred Collins Jr., said Thursday the town “cannot make any comment on a personnel matter” and insisted the Sun Journal has written “inaccurate statements” about the proceedings, though he would not detail them.

“We are bound by law not to speak about Zakk Maher and his administrative leave,” Collins said, adding that “I personally do not know the facts, and perhaps Zakk may not want the facts to come out. I do not know.”

Lee said comments like the ones from Collins are “trying to create innuendo” despite the reality that Maher wants the details to become public. He said it’s the town, not Maher, that is refusing to make the relevant documentation available for scrutiny.

He said the problem with what’s been released is that it’s “pretty damn vague” in a situation that requires more detail.

The one councilor who voted against terminating Maher, Kieth Bennett, said Thursday he opposed the move because he “thought we could handle it” by talking with the manager in executive session to try to resolve concerns about him.

By “telling him what he was doing that we didn’t like,” Bennett said, the five-member council would “give him a chance to correct it” rather than simply axing him.

The suit argues the council met improperly on June 17 in executive session “in a manner seeking to defeat the purposes of the Freedom of Access Act” and tried to fire him without obeying relevant state law about the process, including informing the public.

Lee pointed out that town leaders turned off the video camera used to record public sessions and held a second meeting that night after the public had left without telling anyone, another violation of Maine’s open meetings law.

Lee’s suit argues the town has had a number of illegal meetings and has not delivered documents that should be available to Maher.

Bennett said he didn’t realize the council had done anything wrong with open meetings laws or the town charter.

He said he has come to realize, though, “that we had messed up” because they were not clear how things ought to have been done.

“I was a bit remiss in not looking at the charter,” Bennett said, adding that he plans to have a copy with him in future meetings to make sure it is obeyed.

Lee said the town hasn’t said how long it will take to provide the requested information — something it is bound to provide under state law — or to estimate how much it will cost, which is another requirement of the law.

Lee made a FOAA request for records, including video and audio recordings, and copies of the town’s information policy acknowledgement forms, on June 19.

“It appears they have made no efforts to collect any such documents, nor have they provided a single document as required by statute,” the suit said.

The Sun Journal has asked for a copy of the final disciplinary record under Maine’s Freedom of Access Act, but the town’s lawyer, John Conway, denied the request because there has been “no final disciplinary action taken against Mr. Maher and the action by the Town Council is a preliminary resolution regarding an employee matter.”

Lee advised councilors two days after the initial termination effort that they did not file a written preliminary resolution with the town clerk stating the specific reasons for the proposed removal, as required by the town’s charter. Nor, he said, had the town delivered a copy of it to Maher within 10 days of the filing, which is also required under the charter.

Once Maher received the letter, he is allowed 20 days to reply and request a public hearing.

On June 25, the council voted to send a preliminary resolution letter to Maher explaining its decision and announced he was on “administrative leave.”

Fifield asked that the letter be dated retroactive to June 17, the date of the 4-1 vote to relieve Maher from his position. That letter has not been released to the public, but the earlier one-page one was included as an exhibit in Maher’s lawsuit.

Bennett said the council plans on “continuing the discussion” about Maher at its Aug. 5 session.

According to the suit, the documents requested by Lee are needed to prepare for a public hearing that will likely occur within a few weeks. And, access to the records “is vital to Mr. Maher’s ability to respond to attempts to terminate, and therefore his due process.”

Despite what he called an “illegal termination” and “the indignity of being marched out of the office by a police escort,” along with the secrecy and “the continued lies being told by councilors,” Lee said that Maher “is not going to give up.”

“He came to Mechanic Falls to improve the community for its residents. Whether he will be allowed to continue to do that is exclusively in the hands of five town councilors,” the lawyer said.

Lee has asked the court to order Mechanic Falls to hand over the requested records and to pay for Maher’s attorney’s fees and litigation expenses related to the request for them. He also requested a judge assess civil penalties as punishment, as provided by state law.

Fifield and Conway could not be reached for comment Thursday.

In response to a FOAA request from the Sun Journal, first made verbally and then in writing on Wednesday, on Thursday the town of Mechanic Falls provided copies of certificates of public access training that councilors are required to complete for four of the five councilors. According to those records, Councilors Fifield, Bennett and Wayne Hackett completed public access training in January 2019; Councilor Nick Konstantoulakis completed the training in 2015.

Councilor John Emery II is not required to complete the training until Sept. 1, or 90 days after his election.

Termination letter from Mechanic Falls to Zakk Maher.

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