Former Monterey police sergeant's suit against town claims retaliation

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SPRINGFIELD — A former Monterey police sergeant who was denied reappointment to the force has filed a federal lawsuit against the town, its Select Board and Selectman Kenneth Basler, alleging civil rights violations and retaliation.

Sgt. Michael Johnson claims the Select Board declined to reappointment him as a full-time officer as retaliation for critical comments he made about the board during an unsuccessful campaign for election to an open seat in 2016.

The suit claims the town also denied Johnson medical insurance to which he was entitled, and attempted to deny unemployment benefits to him after the Select Board declined to reappoint him.

The suit was filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Springfield by Johnson's attorney, Timothy Burke.

Town attorney Jeremia A. Pollard said Wednesday he had not yet seen the complaint and was unable to comment upon it.

Johnson had been a Monterey officer for about seven years, after having served as a member of the Buckland Police Department for about five years prior to that.

He had not been subjected to any disciplinary action prior to his reappointment being denied, according to the suit, and he had filled in for Chief Gareth Backhaus while he was on medical leave in 2010.

The Select Board unanimously reappointed Johnson every year for the previous six years, and was unanimous in approving his promotion to sergeant in 2012, according to the suit.

The suit alleges "immediately" after Basler was elected in May 2014, he began making false allegations about items Johnson had purchased with Council on Aging funds.

Johnson, who was appointed to the Council on Aging by the Select Board in August 2011, informed Basler all of the purchases had prior approval.

"The accusations made by ... Basler were false and made with the intention of publicly disparaging (Johnson) and holding him up to criticism within the town and police department," the 13-page suit reads.

The suit goes on to note Basler's remarks at a May 23, 2016, Select Board meeting in which he said he would speak to Johnson regarding a lack of investigation into an incident between two women inside Town Hall in which one allegedly used profanity toward another.

According to the suit, Basler knew or should have known that Johnson wasn't in the building when the incident happened and, "the event was not of significance to require police intervention."

The suit alleges Basler made the false allegation in an effort to create a basis to deny his reappointment.

The matter was addressed with the Select Board in open session on July 5, 2016.

"(Johnson), by appearing before the Select Board, angered Chairperson Basler, who then began a campaign to question (Johnson's) actions as a police officer in subsequent Select Board meetings," according to the suit.

In November 2016, the Select Board hired a part-time town administrator, Willie Morales.

According to the suit, Morales met with Johnson and Chief Backhaus on Nov. 12 and told them both that, based upon conversations he'd had with the Select Board, they did not want to reappoint Johnson because he questioned their authority, but was able to convince them to leave police matters up to the department for the time being.

Morales resigned in February 2017, citing concerns over "how the town is being run," part of the suit reads.

In April 2016, Johnson ran against Basler for a seat on the Select Board.

On April 16, 2016, Johnson participated in a candidates forum in which he was critical of the Select Board and said he disfavored "Town Hall" appointments by the board, which gave that power to the Select Board and removed it from the voters.

He also spoke in favor of hiring a full-time town administrator because Monterey needed "a professional in Town Hall."

According to the suit, making such a hire would have diminished the role and influence of those on the board.

Johnson lost his bid for the position on May 10, 2016.

During the Select Board meeting June 28, Johnson was rejected unanimously by the Select Board despite a recommendation from Chief Backhaus to keep him on. Johnson was the only one of about 43 other town employees not unanimously approved for reappointment.

The suit alleges Johnson was rejected because of his candidacy, during which he was critical of the Select Board and its use of public money.

"(Johnson) publicly stated that he wanted to promote more transparency on the board and increase financial security for the Town of Monterey with stated long-term goals instead of what (Johnson) viewed as a short-sighted outlook by the current administration," the complaint reads.

One of the issues about which Johnson raised concerns was an alleged spending of $591,000 of free cash without first getting proper approval to do so via a special town meeting.

In July, Johnson was denied medical insurance to which he was entitled based upon his service to the town, the suit alleges.

The suit goes on to claim the town tried to deny Johnson his unemployment benefits.

Those benefits were approved by the state in August after the town "failed to provide sufficient separation information," and that it couldn't be determined that the decision to not reappoint Johnson was for deliberate misconduct or for a knowing violation of rules or policy.

The suit seeks a jury trial and unspecified damages.

Bob Dunn can be reached at bdunn@berkshireeagle.com, at @BobDunn413 on Twitter and 413-496-6249.


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