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Monterey's clerk files a whistleblower lawsuit against the town and its officials, citing a hostile workplace

terry walker at a table and donald coburn with a microphone

Monterey Town Clerk Terry Walker listens as former Select Board chairman Donald Coburn speaks during a special town meeting last year. Walker has filed a whistleblower lawsuit in federal court against former Select Board Chair Coburn and other town officials, as well as the town itself.

MONTEREY — The town clerk claims in a federal whistleblower lawsuit that her civil rights were violated by Monterey officials who created a hostile work environment at Town Hall.

Terry Walker’s lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Springfield Sept. 9, names as defendants current Town Administrator Melissa Noe as well as former Select Board members Steven Weisz and Donald Coburn.

She accuses Noe of harassment, intimidation and retaliation — just as she did in internal complaints last year — allegations later backed up by an outside investigator’s report. Walker had filed complaints against Coburn and Weisz, claiming they tried to intimidate her into dropping the accusations.

Walker is also suing the town itself for its refusal to confront the situation or take any disciplinary action — even after aggressive behavior that made her afraid for her physical safety, she said.

“The Town of Monterey and its Select Board took little action to curtail or discipline Defendant Noe, and her harassment of the Plaintiff increased, with friends of Defendant Noe joining in the attempts to intimidate the Plaintiff,” the legal filing says.

Her suit seeks compensatory and punitive damages, but does not specify an amount.

Noe declined to comment for this story about these particular accusations, but previously has strongly denied them. Noe says Walker made similar allegations at other workplaces — accusations Walker and her attorney say were legitimate.

Coburn said he did not have enough time to review the new filing to comment, but previously has pointed to Walker as the problem. Weisz did not return an email seeking comment.

Walker declined to comment and referred all questions to her attorney, Timothy Burke. Burke said the heart of the matter is that town leaders ignored the “very thorough” investigator’s report.

“The ongoing harassment has never stopped, despite this report,” Burke said. “It’s as if the report doesn’t exist.”

Noe and others previously said they believe the report was flawed.

A decade of rancor reaches a boil

The suit stems from long standing turmoil at Town Hall that reached an apex last year, when Walker claims she was verbally assaulted, intimidated, harassed and retaliated against.

Walker, who has worked for the town for six years, had filed internal complaints against Noe, then against Weisz — while he was board chair — and then former Chair Coburn, both of whom she claimed tried to manipulate her into dropping the complaints.

Complaints and counter-complaints began to snowball, drawing other officials and residents into the conflict.

Out of 18 complaints, 13 were filed against Noe. Noe had filed counter-complaints.

This came amid other related skirmishes, like an attempt to oust another board member who said he didn’t like what he was seeing at Town Hall.

The town hired an investigator from a firm specializing in employment law. The scope ballooned, and so did the cost — to more than $20,000.

At the heart of the investigator’s findings was a “misuse of power” by Noe. The report found Noe central to most of the conflicts, given her wide involvement in town business. The investigator described it as a “pattern of conduct.”

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Weisz has dismissed the report as “one opinion.” Noe previously denied the accusations against her.

It is this report on which Walker’s federal lawsuit is based.

Some of the allegations

In her report, investigator and Corrine Hood Greene, of Greene & Hafer, LLC, claims town officials, including Weisz, never took steps recommended by the investigator to prevent a repeat. After a drawn-out consideration of what to do about the findings, no one was disciplined.

The legal complaint recounts events that Walker said led to the alleged harassment and retaliation, including Walker objecting to what she claims were instances of attempts at voter fraud and election tampering by Noe, which Noe has denied.

Walker also claims Noe made false statements about her work performance in public, amid other alleged attempts to disparage and intimidate her.

Walker claims things continued to get worse at Town Hall.

“Ms. Walker continued to be subjected to an overt pattern of retaliation and hostile treatment by Defendant Noe, who seemed emboldened by the lack of action taken by the Select Board,” the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit includes portions of threatening emails Coburn sent to Walker warning her that he would “dig up dirt” on her from past workplace problems if she pursued her complaints against town officials — threats he and his wife, Ellen Coburn, made good on.

“Remember when I alerted you to the risks of precipitating an investigation?” Donald Coburn wrote to Walker. “Well, now you are most likely about to face them.”

Burke, Walker’s attorney, says it’s not surprising town officials would try to justify their conduct by raising past allegations.

“Every complaint she has ever made has been legitimate and supported by factual information,” Burke said, adding that what has happened in Monterey is much worse than incidents from her past.

steven weisz speaks at monterey town meeting (copy) (copy)

Monterey Select Board Chairman Steven Weisz speaking at annual town meeting last fall, flanked by board members, Justin Makuc, left, and John Weingold, right. 

Another instance, in which Noe allegedly threatened physical violence against Walker in public, prompted Greene to write in her report that the town’s employee manual forbids it as “one of the egregious behaviors that may warrant immediate dismissal.”

Walker made a previous complaint saying she feared for her physical safety after a dust-up with Noe and others.

The investigator found that Weisz’s allowing a “second interaction to escalate as far as it did without more intervention or immediate disciplinary action is potentially problematic for the Town.”

Weisz told The Eagle in May he didn’t want to further pursue the investigation’s findings because he wanted the town to heal from the rancor.

Greene had cited as evidence of harassment and intimidation Noe’s “sweeping public records requests” to Walker — about Walker herself — while she was the records access officer.

Walker’s suit alleges the retaliation continues today. Noe denies this.

“Harassing behavior, disparaging emails and further attempts to coerce Plaintiff to violate various Massachusetts General Laws have all transpired,” the lawsuit says.

Walker claims an accommodation made so that Walker could work when Noe was not at Town Hall was rescinded when Noe learned that Walker would be filing a suit under the Massachusetts Whistleblower Act.

The lawsuit also claims that the town has pulled her town-issued credit card, removed computer and printer access, among other things — both of which Noe denies and says Walker has mischaracterized.

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or 413-329-6871.

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