Inside the defense against sergeant's retaliation claim in Williamstown

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WILLIAMSTOWN — Of all the allegations in a Williamstown Police sergeant's claims against the town in a federal lawsuit, one has prompted less public debate.

It is Sgt. Scott McGowan's belief that he lost a promotion last year because he spoke up against bias and harassment in the town's Police Department.

As elected officials manage a crisis of confidence in the department, and in their own work, a filing from this year offers a peek inside how the town will defend against McGowan's claim of retaliation.

It sits deep inside the response that attorneys filed Jan. 7 with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination on behalf of Chief Kyle J. Johnson and Town Manager Jason Hoch. McGowan named both men in a complaint to the MCAD that later was withdrawn in favor of the lawsuit filed Aug. 12 with the U.S. District Court.

That suit's claims of sexual harassment and racial animosity and bias by Johnson have brought public outcry, calls for the officials to be put on leave and demands for reform. Members of the Select Board were not aware of the MCAD filing, or the town's response to it, until McGowan's lawsuit hit the court.

Though members of the Select Board say the litigation limits their ability to speak to specifics in the suit, the town staked out its position on the alleged job retaliation when it responded to the MCAD filing.

Johnson and Hoch have declined to comment on the litigation.

McGowan alleges that Johnson told him in 2018 that if a lieutenant's position were created, the chief would not recommend him and the job instead would go to Officer Michael Ziemba, who was hired the next summer.

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In the town's response, Johnson admits that he told McGowan he wouldn't be selected. It says the chief felt that Ziemba was well-liked in the department and would be a better leader, even though he didn't have McGowan's supervisory experience, as the longest serving of three sergeants.

The town's MCAD filing says McGowan later seemed to withdraw from relations within the department.

"Since that time, the Complainant had rarely spoken with many of his fellow officers, essentially giving them the cold shoulder, and creating tension and drama within the department," the response said.

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Nonetheless, the town claims that Johnson and Hoch agreed that the candidate who received the highest scores on a series of assessment tests would be offered the job.

McGowan and Ziemba were the only applicants. Ziemba had worked for the Police Department full time since 2004, McGowan since 2002.

The town says the reviews were farmed out to Integrity Testing, which tapped three outside police officials to evaluate the candidates. Neither Johnson nor Hoch indicated a preference for a candidate to the reviewers, the town says.

Both men underwent testing July 31, 2019, and both received scores that put them in the "above average" category as applicants.

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Ziemba's total scores were higher when added together: 82.072. McGowan received a total score of 80.942.

In a letter dated Aug. 12, 2019, Johnson recapped the assessments for Hoch, who served as the appointing authority, and recommended Ziemba.

Ziemba received the promotion Aug. 15, 2019, rising from officer to lieutenant in one step.

"This assessment was a sham," McGowan's MCAD complaint said. "All of the measurement categories were subjective and on information and belief, McGowan's performance was in fact higher than that of Ziemba. Johnson had already made up his mind long before McGowan even applied for the position."

In his letter to Hoch, Johnson mentioned Ziemba securing the top score, adding, "He did so without the benefit of any formal supervisory experience and trainings."

The MCAD complaint says that, even before coming out on top of the evaluation, Ziemba moved into the lieutenant's office in the town's new police station. The town disputes that claim. It says Ziemba moved into what was planned as an administrative assistant's office, then kept it, leading it to become the lieutenant's office.

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-588-8341.


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