Harbormaster files lawsuit to save job

April 4, 2017

By GAYLA CAWLEY

SWAMPSCOTT — Lawrence Bithell, attempting to save his former job as harbormaster, has filed a lawsuit against the town of Swampscott.

The “complaint for declaratory judgment and injunctive relief” was recently filed on behalf on Bithell by his attorney, Neil Rossman, at Salem Superior Court. The defendants are listed as the Board of Selectmen, town of Swampscott, and Town Administrator Sean Fitzgerald.

“The plaintiff, Lawrence Bithell, has served as the town’s harbormaster for over 38 years,” reads the complaint. “In a series of illegal actions, the town, acting by and through its (then) Town Administrator Thomas Younger, its (then) Interim Town Administrator Gino Cresta, Jr., and the current board of selectmen, has attempted to remove the plaintiff from the office of harbormaster, first by placing him on administrative leave and then by allegedly not reappointing him.”

The complaint was filed to prevent the town from removing Bithell from his position, before a formal judgment by the court on “his rights to continued employment in office, and subsequently, for a declaratory judgment on his right to continued tenure in office,” reads the document.

Fitzgerald said the selectmen and Rossman were looking at a possible settlement.

“At this point, we are in the middle of litigation, so I can’t really get into any specifics,” Fitzgerald said.

Naomi Dreeben, chairwoman of the board of selectmen, said she wouldn’t comment on the lawsuit, calling it a “rather delicate situation.”

The complaint argues that Bithell’s appointment from its initial enactment in 1978 “shall remain in force unless the harbormaster is removed for neglect of duty, negligence or conduct unbecoming of a harbormaster” and alleges that he had never been charged with any of the three reasons for removal. Rossman, in the complaint, also argues that the office of harbormaster is not subject to reappointment.

Rossman said by phone on Tuesday that he had no further comment and the complaint speaks for itself.

Bithell was placed on paid administrative leave in September by the town, and is facing criminal charges for his use of an expired license plate. His case in ongoing at Lynn District Court and his trial is scheduled for May 2, according to the Essex County District Attorney’s office.

Younger, at the time, told The Item that he was not recommending Bithell’s reappointment because he thought the town should go in a different direction. The complaint references a similar statement in a letter from Younger to Bithell.

Cresta, department of public works director and former interim town administrator, recommended the appointment of Swampscott Police Sgt. William Waters as the new interim harbormaster in February, which was approved by the selectmen. Once Waters was appointed, he replaced Bithell, who was taken off administrative leave.

Bridging a danger

The harbormaster position pays a stipend of $7,983, and officials say it is a yearly appointment. Waters is in place through June 30 and Cresta said at the time of his recommendation that it was his hope that he would be then appointed as the permanent harbormaster.

Cresta said he couldn’t comment on the complaint.

Bithell was arraigned in October on charges of attaching or concealing a registration plate, use of an uninsured trailer and use of an unregistered trailer. He was also issued a citation for misuse of an official number plate.

Bithell’s charges stem from an Aug. 15 complaint received by police about misuse of a registration plate, assigned to a town-owned 2007 Load Rite utility trailer, according to a police report from Lynn District Court, and previously reported in The Item.


Gayla Cawley can be reached at gcawley@itemlive.com. Follow her on Twitter @GaylaCawley.