Michael Vitiello Tammy Wells Photo

ALFRED — The longtime administrator at the York County Jail has been terminated over his handling of a major COVID-19 outbreak at the facility last year.

York County commissioners voted unanimously last Friday to part ways with Michael Vitiello, upholding a recommendation that had been made by Sheriff William King.

Vitiello, who served as jail administrator for 21 years, had been on paid administrative leave for 10 months following the outbreak at the jail that began around Aug. 19 when a corrections officer tested positive. The outbreak – one of the state’s largest during the pandemic – affected 48 inmates, 48 staff members and 16 staff household contacts, according to a third-party investigation commissioned by the county and conducted by attorney Leah Rachin.

The issues that led to Vitiello’s termination centered around the lack of mask-wearing by staff prior to the outbreak and by inmates, all of whom were required to wear masks as of May 5 while in the intake section of the facility, but not once they were assigned to the jail housing units. According to the investigator’s report, mask-wearing was prohibited for inmates other than in the intake area.

Investigator Rachin wrote in her report that, prior to the outbreak, there was some question whether masks were expressly prohibited among staff, but witnesses told her there was a general understanding that corrections officers would not be wearing them.

The decision by the York County commissioners to end Vitiello’s employment came Friday, June 18 following a day-long administrative hearing. Vitiello waived his right to have the hearing held behind closed doors.

“This is a terrible thing to have to do, but I think it has to be done,” Commissioner Richard Clark said. “What happened in the jail is no small matter … it brought the county into danger, and those who work there, their families and those in the jail’s care.”

King told commissioners that he relied on Vitiello’s expertise in jail operations and had lost confidence in the jail administrator over the masking issue, as well as Vitiello’s responses to King over the matter.

“Instead of saying it was a bad thing, he turned it on me and said, ‘you knew, it’s your decision and your jail,’” said King. “That entered into my decision to recommend termination, because he is my top guy in the jail.”

King said he struggled with the decision to recommend dismissal.

“This is not misconduct on Michael’s part, but when this all came about … I wanted him to acknowledge this was bad,” the sheriff said. “I think it would be a challenge for us to work together in the future.”

Vitiello had a clean personnel record, commissioners noted at the hearing, and King had once nominated him for an American Jail Association leadership award.

It was unclear on Friday if Vitiello will appeal the decision. Appeals of governmental action may be made to York County Superior Court.

Both King and Vitiello declined to comment following the decision.

Capt. Daniel Bean has been acting administrator at York County Jail since Vitiello was placed on leave.

The COVID-19 outbreak at the jail began after an employee attended a wedding in Millinocket in Aug. 7 and returned to work on Aug. 13 even though he felt unwell. The corrections officer tested positive for COVID-19 on Aug. 19.

The wedding and reception were later termed a “super spreader” event by public health officials, who estimated 280 people were sickened, according to the investigator’s report commissioned by the county. Eight deaths were linked to the wedding. A U.S. Centers for Disease Control report noted none of those who died attended the event.

After the jail outbreak was linked to the Millinocket wedding, scrutiny increased on safety measures in place at the jail. The outbreak at York County Jail was the first of a series of coronavirus outbreaks at some of Maine’s county jails and state prison facilities.

The investigator’s report pointed out there were a number of coronavirus prevention protocols in place at the jail prior to the outbreak — all in-person programming and visits had ceased, cleaning protocols were intensified, and inmates were tested in intake before being allowed to enter the housing units. The county has since earned kudos from the Department of Corrections for a pandemic response plan they crafted and put into action following the coronavirus outbreak at the jail.

But mask-wearing at the jail was not widespread and Vitiello told King that he was reluctant to enforce the practice.

King said he and Vitiello had discussed mask wearing in March 2020 and there were frequent subsequent conversations on the topic.

“I was told it would frighten the inmates. (Vitiello) told me, ‘It will cause a panic,’” said King at the hearing. “I had many discussions with Michael about mask wearing and his advice was ‘we can’t do that, it will frighten the inmates and cause disruptions.’”

Vitiello told commissioners he had expressed his concerns about inmate reaction initially, referred to as “inmate climate concerns,” but that his position on mask wearing progressed over time. He said a series of emails would bear that out.

Vitiello said he ordered masks in anticipation of an agreement with the corrections union.

“We had communicated and agreed to move forward with (health screenings) and mask wearing in May,” for staff, said Vitiello, referencing one of the email exchanges. He said he wrote County Manager Greg Zinser, the county’s union negotiator, and Human Resources Director Linda Corliss in June inquiring about progress on masks and health screening with National Correctional Employees Union. In the end, an agreement with the union didn’t materialize.

Attorney Michael Waxman asked Vitiello if he could have simply required mask wearing by staff.

“I didn’t feel that I could,” said Vitiello, adding he believed it was a significant enough change in working conditions that it had to be bargained.

Vitiello said King had told him during a pre-determination hearing that he had refused to take any responsibility.

“I did say if you had wanted them in masks, you could have directed them to be put in masks anytime,” he said.

In the end, King concluded that he no longer had confidence in Vitiello. However, Waxman, who represented Vitiello at the hearing, said he believed a loss of confidence was not just cause for termination.

Cause for dismissal, suspension or disciplinary action must be “a just, reasonable, appropriate and substantial reason for the action taken that relates to or affects the ability, performance of duties, authority or actions of the employee or the public’s rights or interests,” according to Title 30-A of Maine statutes.

Waxman said his client’s actions did not warrant dismissal.

Linda McGill, the attorney for King, argued that the dismissal measure was just and fair and said Vitiello had an opportunity to admit his error. She said the mask issue had serious consequences that impacted not only the jail but people in the community.

In his motion, Clark, the county commissioner, acknowledged the decision to dismiss Vitiello was difficult but the right choice. The other four commissioners all agreed.

“I believe the sheriff has the right to have confidence in those who work for him,” Clark said.

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