By Frank Mulligan | Gatehouse News Service
WAREHAM — The Civil Service Commission issued a unanimous decision Thursday to return Donald Bliss to his position as a Wareham Police lieutenant with an award of an estimated $200,000-plus in back pay and benefits lost since he was fired from the post in February 2009.
His attorney, Andrew J. Gambaccini, stated in a press release, “At this stage, the situation for Lt. Bliss is being evaluated in two ways. Looking back, Lt. Bliss, along with his counsel and his family, will be reviewing the decision in greater detail and will be considering his legal options with respect to the enduring nightmare of the past two years and those personally responsible for this travesty.
“At the same time, looking forward, Lt. Bliss is anxious to return to work and to do the great work that he has been known for in advancing the interests of the town of Wareham and its police department. On his return, part of the job of Lt. Bliss, as a leader in the department, will be to make sure that he and others in the department always are doing the job that needs to be done to protect and to serve the town of Wareham and its citizens.”
According to the commission ruling, the town did not have “just cause” to fire Bliss, and termed some of the town’s assertions bordering “on incredulous.”
In its summary of conclusion, the commission states, “The draconian sanction imposed here upon a 24-year veteran WPD police officer with an otherwise unblemished and, indeed, markedly distinguished career of service to Wareham, who has acknowledged his one poor lapse of judgment and fully remediated his behavior, is an unmistakable example of the effect of improper personal motives and undue political influence which have no place in a merit-based civil service system.”
According to testimony heard by the commission, the town’s reasons for firing Bliss in February 2009 involved his use of a town cell phone for personal business, failing to fully reimburse the town for its use, using his position as a police officer to promote private business, using his position to sell alarms to the town at unfair advantage, and being misleading and obstructive during the investigation.
Former Police Chief Thomas Joyce issued a press release following Bliss’ firing in 2009, “The department is fully confident that a pending review of these complaints by the Civil Service Commission, on the actual facts rather than political retribution, will result in the lieutenant being vindicated and reinstated to his position.”
The commission stated Joyce’s testimony, as well as that made by former Town Administrator John McAuliffe, was “persuasive” in shaping its dismissal of the town’s charges. The two men testified “in support of their shared conclusion that (former) Interim Town Administrator (John J.) Sanguinet’s discharge of Lt. Bliss was wrong-headed, and was not based on sound independent judgment, but was one (of several examples) of continued intermeddling in personnel matters and daily operations orchestrated by the Board of Selectmen in excess of their authority, motivated by personal and political factors,” according to the ruling.
Joyce called the board members at the time the “most aggressive bunch” he had seen in all his years as a municipal executive. His deteriorating relationship with the board led to his retirement, he said.
The commission’s ruling also noted Joyce was “personally close to tears as he described how strongly he believed Lt. Bliss was mistreated by the Board of Selectmen.”
According to testimony, Bliss had never been disciplined prior to the allegations that led to his firing, and had “compiled a distinguished record of public service” in his years with the department.
In accepting promotion to lieutenant in 2002 he forfeited 2,500 hours of compensatory time, according to testimony.
He actually introduced the idea of using cell phones in the department in the late 1990s, an idea the chief adopted after Bliss purchased a cell at his own expense and demonstrated its worth. He did use it for personal calls but reimbursed the town, and not in interference with police work, according to testimony. The town never established a policy regarding employee cell phone use. He stopped reimbursing the town after it switched to a different plan that never exceeded allowed minutes, meaning personal calls were not costing it any additional money. Bliss was advised by a town official it was no longer necessary for him to reimburse the town for the cell’s use, according to testimony.
He worked in the alarm business on the side and got a real estate license, but according to testimony did not use his position to financial advantage in either business and made proper inquiries on how to avoid confict of interest.
The one lapse he acknowledged and for which he was disciplined by serving 16 hours of punishment duty at no pay and forfeiting eight hours in overtime was when his police cell phone number was used in a newspaper advertisement for land he was selling.
He was unaware that the ad had been taken out by his broker, according to testimony and immediately agreed to change his police phone number, as well as to the disciplinary actions.
Former Selectman Brenda Eckstrom first noticed the ad and complained to McAuliffe, who after looking into the matter agreed that the punishment duty and overtime forfeiture were appropriate measures.
In June 2008, “on a surprise motion of Selectman Eckstrom,” the board voted 4-1 to put McAuliffe on paid administrative leave, in part for failing to act on the cell phone-ad complaint, according to the ruling.
According to further testimony, the “resolution was not on the board’s agenda, and was the final business raised around midnight after a very lengthy meeting.”
Selectmen named his assistant, John Sanguinet, interim town administrator, who reopened the cell phone investigation. Sanguinet filed charges against Bliss with the chief six months later, and Bliss was fired a month later.
If you are a member of the Massachusetts Police Association Legal Defense Fund and in need of an attorney to defend your rights, contact the Massachusetts legal defense attorneys at Reardon, Joyce, & Akerson for an initial consultation.
Reardon, Joyce & Akerson, PC
Massachusetts Police Defense Attorneys
4 Lancaster Terrace
Worcester, MA 01609
Telephone (508) 754-7285 • Fax (508) 754-7220