SKOWHEGAN — A selectman elected seven months ago violated town policies that dictate the conduct of Skowhegan officials and in one instance was found to have gone to the fire station to criticize the fire chief in front of department staff, according to the findings of an investigation by the town.

It was determined that Selectman Harold Bigelow “dressed down the fire chief in front of his subordinate employees” and in other instances ridiculed a town employee for wearing a mask and referred to Mexican people in a derogatory way, according to a report that outlined the violations.

The investigation and subsequent report were done by Sarah Newell, an attorney for the law firm Eaton Peabody, which the town hired to conduct the investigation.

An investigation has determined that Skowhegan Selectman Harold Bigelow violated town policies outlining the conduct of elected and appointed town officials. Morning Sentinel file photo

Following his encounter last month with fire Chief Shawn Howard, Bigelow said he had to leave the fire station, because his “Black kids” were waiting in the car for him. Bigelow was referring to his dogs.

“Several employees stated that Mr. Bigelow paused after making the comment as if he expected a reaction,” the town report said. “One employee stated that he believed Mr. Bigelow was trying to be funny but that no one laughed.”

The report went on to say that, “Several employees found the comment inappropriate and one employee was particularly bothered.”

Advertisement

The report, received by town officials last Friday and obtained this week by the Morning Sentinel, indicates that six complaints were filed against Bigelow. Of those, four were substantiated. Of the four, two were found to break the ethics code all elected and appointed officials are required to review and sign when they take office. Two of the complaints were not substantiated.

Bigelow said this week that he was surprised when he learned that at least two of the complaints came from the fire department and believes the investigation is an attempt by some town leaders to oust him from the board.

“There are two opinions to every story,” he said. “Some people could take offense if they’re very sensitive.”

Todd Smith, selectmen chairman, said Wednesday that he could not comment on the findings of the report as he is waiting to meet with the rest of the board to discuss it.

“I feel bad saying that, because I do have personal thoughts about it. But as chairperson, … (Bigelow) and I have had several one-on-one discussions,” Smith said.

Because of scheduling conflicts, the five selectmen are not able to meet in executive session until Feb. 15 to review the findings.

Advertisement

A disagreement over bonuses

Bigelow’s unannounced visit to the fire station stemmed from a Dec. 14 selectmen’s meeting at which Howard and Bigelow disagreed on how the town should use federal pandemic relief money to provide bonuses for municipal employees. Bigelow pushed for a higher bonus for first-responders and Howard asking for all employees to have consistent bonuses across the board.

Bigelow said he went to the fire station the next day to discuss the bonuses with firefighters, with Howard present.

“I felt (Howard) had thrown them all under the bus (that) night,” Bigelow told the Morning Sentinel on Wednesday. “We have a difference of opinion, I explained it, and I feel the (first-responders) ought to be recognized for what they had been put through with (COVID-19). I felt (the firefighters) ought to be represented, but the fire chief didn’t feel that way.”

The report said that Bigelow referred to Howard “as a bobble head during the exchange.”

Bigelow then made the reference to kids in his car as he prepared to leave.

Advertisement

Newell in her report said she met with Bigelow about the various complaints against him, including the one stemming from his visit to the fire house.

“Bigelow went on to explain that his dogs were in the car and they were black,” Newell said in the report. “Although Bigelow stated the comment had nothing to do with race, I witnessed his tendency to make provocative comments regarding race in order to make a point or get a reaction.”

Bigelow was found to have violated the code of ethics in both incidents at the fire house that stipulates town leaders “shall refrain from making personal charges or disparaging remarks” or “verbal attacks” around the character or motives of municipal employees. The report says the code, “requires Mr. Bigelow to follow Town policies and laws applying to the Town. The Town’s policies and the law prohibit discrimination and harassment based on race.”

Bigelow explained that he had read the code of ethics and said while he was “on the edge,” he did not violate the rules. He repeated his assertion that the complaints filed against him are an act of retaliation against him by town officials, including Howard and Town Manager Christine Almand.

“I was talking with the firefighters and (Howard) just happened to be there,” Bigelow said. “I went in there, but it wasn’t to dress him down, it was to let them know that I was supportive of them.”

Newell said in the report that Bigelow “expressed that he believed he was being targeted in this investigation because of previous political arguments that he and the fire chief had and because of an ‘us and them’ dynamic in the town.”

Advertisement

“(Bigelow) stated that he was elected because he spoke his mind and was not afraid of anyone,” the report said.

‘Rude and unnecessary’

Two other complaints were substantiated, though not found in violation of the ethics code. One of them had to do with the town employee who wore a mask, with Bigelow telling her “he couldn’t believe she wore a diaper on her face.”

Although the comment was “rude and unnecessary,” it did not amount to harassment under the law or town policies, the report said.

The second instance stemmed from a comment made at a selectmen’s meeting Aug. 10, when Bigelow referred to Mexican people during a discussion around businesses in town struggling to find help.

He said this week that he had made the reference to “Mexicans living in a development in Skowhegan that do not speak English” and that he had pointed out that it “was a challenge for the school and police.”

Advertisement

Because the comment during the August meeting was not directed at an employee, it did not run afoul of any town policy. But the report noted it was “inappropriate and potentially discriminatory.”

Almand, the town manager, said this week that she could not comment on the findings because it involves an ongoing personnel matter.

Bigelow has served on the board since June, when he defeated incumbent Roger Staples by a single vote. He previously served on the Skowhegan-based School Administrative District 54 board where he opposed the removal of the Indians nickname from Skowhegan Area High School.

The report comes on the heels of tensions that boiled over last month between Almand and selectmen. Chairman Smith accused Almand of creating a hostile work environment and a “repeating pattern of behavior” indicating she was deceptive.

But the criticism didn’t stop the board from approving a new employment contract for Almand on Dec. 14 that included an 18% pay increase over two years. Bigelow was the only selectman to oppose her contract.

This is not the first time complaints have been made against Bigelow. He previously said that an executive session was held in October involving the board and the town attorney where he learned of three complaints made against him by municipal employees. He was read the code of ethics and no further disciplinary action was taken, Bigelow said.

The Morning Sentinel learned of the town investigation last week when Bigelow contacted a reporter to discuss it. The newspaper has submitted a Freedom of Access Act request seeking a copy of Bigelow’s emails with other board members and municipal employees. The town is still processing that request.

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.