By ERIC GOLDSCHEIDER | For the Gazette
Worcester attorney Andrew Gambaccini in June 2014 wrote a letter to each of the three commissioners of the South Hadley Electric Light Department in which he detailed a pattern of workplace intimidation and violence lasting more than a decade.
Gambaccini wrote on behalf of his client, SHELD electrician Robert Blasko Jr. who allegedly had been assaulted by Andrew Orr, an engineer with the utility, according to the June 12, 2014, letter. It also lists numerous instances in which Wayne Doerpholz, manager of the electric light department, failed to act.
“On a large number of occasions and in a variety of ways (Doerpholz) has been made aware of these events and consistently proven himself either unwilling or incapable of resolving the matter and ensuring a workplace environment free from violent, profane, threatening, intimidating, coercive and harassing behavior,” wrote Gambaccini.
He also urged the commissioners to launch a workplace investigation in order to avoid litigation. “Rather than simply bringing this matter to court,” wrote Gambaccini, Blasko wanted the issue “resolved outside of the judicial system … and the unsafe and hostile environment created by Orr and the manager to be brought to an end.”
Sixteen months later, Gambaccini filed a whistleblower lawsuit seeking $750,000 in damages.
The current commissioners, none of whom were on the board in 2014, last week placed Doerpholz and Orr on indefinite paid administrative leave on advice of legal counsel. They have pledged to bring in an outside investigator to evaluate the allegations made against the utility.
The lawsuit alleges a pattern of violent behavior, which included employees being slapped, hit, and followed by Orr wielding a 2-by-6 piece of wood like a weapon, and that Doerpholz retaliated against Blasko for raising these concerns in ways that would “shock the conscience.”
The lawsuit alleges that Doerpholz put Blasko on an unpaid 30-day leave as “punishment” for supposedly having accepted some work elsewhere while he was on medical leave from SHELD due to the psychological stress. This “punishment,” according to the suit, was imposed soon after Blasko’s physician had cleared him to return to work, which was also when Gambaccini wrote to the commissioners seeking action.
On July 11, 2014, Gambaccini sent the commissioners another letter. This time he included then-Select Board Chairman John Hine and Town Administrator Michael Sullivan.
In that letter, Gambaccini referred to a long pattern of workplace violence and also accused Doerpholz of violating Blasko’s civil rights “in what can be described only as a poorly hatched plot of vengeance.”
Also in that letter, Gambaccini explicitly put Hine on notice in his capacity as “an executive officer of the Town of South Hadley” that a lawsuit would follow if actions were not taken to address the behavior by Doerpholz and Orr. Gambaccini also warned that the town could be liable for “negligence” if it did not intervene.
The lawsuit filed in October alleges that not only did Doerpholz put Blasko on involuntary leave but that when he returned to work the bullying, intimidation and humiliation escalated. “For almost two months after his return to work, Blasko was not provided with any keys by Doerpholz, impacting his abilities to discharge his duties effectively,” according to the suit, and he was constantly being threatened with termination and being stared down by Orr.
Doerpholz did not immediately return a call seeking comment for this story. Orr declined comment earlier this week and told a reporter not to call him at home again.
Cheryl Nickl, who chaired the SHELD commission at the time, declined all comment last week, hanging up on a reporter.
Jeffrey Labrecque, another commissioner at the time, Wednesday emailed a lengthy statement insisting that the municipal light board was unable to tell Doerpholz what to do.
“In a nutshell, the sole employment responsibility of the MLB (municipal light board) is the employment of the Manager,” wrote Labrecque. “I learned that while the MLB does have a voice, certain cases in the Commonwealth hold that the Manager of a light department has broad powers and the MLB is somewhat limited in its authority.”
Labrecque added in the statement, “I have sympathy for all the folks that may be involved in this process.”
Christine Archambault, the third commissioner at the time, said she strenuously tried to get the board to respond to Gambaccini’s letter but that she was consistently outvoted by the other two commissioners who supported Doerpholz’s assertions that he was under no obligation to discuss personnel matters with them.
Archambault was removed from the commission last summer when her status as a legal voter in South Hadley was challenged based on paperwork in a divorce proceeding in which she used a Florida address, so she got help from a divorce service at parlinlaw.com/divorce-service/ to get help with this.
Hine, who remains on the Select Board but is no longer the chair, said Friday that he had heard rumors about the issues Gambaccini described. “This letter just formalized the kind of stories we had been hearing about and that were being talked about in a roundabout way,” said Hine. “It didn’t shock me.”
Hine communicated with Archambault who, he said, first brought these kinds of issues to his attention when she was campaigning for a seat on the municipal light board.
Hine said Friday that because the municipal light board is the authority overseeing SHELD and because its members also received the letter he believed that the Select Board was not in a position to intervene. “I’m sure my first reaction is that we had no standing or no authority as a Select Board to insert ourselves into this situation.”
Sullivan said on Saturday that he had a similar understanding, adding that he is not convinced that the town can be held liable for events at the light department. “That’s Mr. Gambaccini’s position. It may or may not be true,” said Sullivan. “That’s a decision for the courts.”
At the time, said Sullivan, “my reaction was to turn it over to SHELD.”
He said that Nickl, who chaired the SHELD board at the time, refused to communicate with him. “We informed our attorneys and they said, ‘Send it over to SHELD.’ ”
Sullivan added that “the SHELD board is elected by the same people who elect the Select Board,” and the town had no authority to impose its will on the utility. “I wish the SHELD board had taken some action to make sure this didn’t continue.”
Looking ahead, Sullivan said the town will be more involved because it has a “solid relationship” with Anne Awad, the current chairwoman of the board who was elected last April. “They seek information from us and we give them advice,” he said. “I never had a conversation with Cheryl Nickl.”
Sullivan said the situation at SHELD is now stable while Doerpholz and Orr are on leave. He believes an investigator will go to work this week. In the meantime the staff has been instructed that if any workplace issues arise, they can turn to the town’s human resources department to help address them.
Hine said Saturday, “The lawsuit has really raised the consciousness of everybody in town of what’s going on.”
He praised Archambault for raising issues that are now coming to wider attention. “You have to credit Christine for getting on the board for purposes of bringing to light the things that were going on and to initiate some change.”
He also said Awad is doing “a remarkable job of very professionally, calmly, with a lot of thought to try to look at what is going on and to try to make some changes for the better.”
In the past, said Hine, “the general manager with the support of the board could basically run the show completely.”