By GAYLA CAWLEY
SWAMPSCOTT — Criminal charges have been dropped against former harbormaster Lawrence Bithell.
Bithell was placed on administrative leave in September by the town, and had been facing criminal charges for use of an expired license plate. He was replaced and taken off administrative leave when Swampscott Police Sgt. William Waters was appointed as the new interim harbormaster in February.
His case was dismissed at Lynn District Court on Tuesday, when he was scheduled to appear for his trial.
Neil Rossman, Bithell’s defense attorney, said the case was assigned for jury trial and he appeared ready to try the case, but the Commonwealth, through the Essex County District Attorney’s office, said they didn’t intend to proceed and moved to have the charges dropped.
Rossman said it was nice to have the matter resolved, and he was sure that Bithell was happy to have the criminal charges removed and not hanging over his head.
Carrie Kimball Monahan, spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office, said DA’s office filed a “nolle prosequi,” which essentially ceases the prosecution. She said the assistant district attorney didn’t say on the record a particular reason for the filing, but typically the reason “is in the interest of justice.”
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 stemmed 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.
As one matter is resolved, Bithell still has a pending lawsuit against the town, attempting to save his job as harbormaster.
In March, a “complaint for declaratory judgment and injunctive relief” was filed on behalf of Bithell by 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 by 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.
Rossman said a hearing on the motion for injunction took place at Salem Superior Court on Wednesday, where a judge took it under advisement. He said the town attorney was there and made the town’s case, and he was there on behalf of Bithell. Rossman said he basically argued along the lines of the complaint, and declined further comment until the judge makes a decision to either grant the injunction or deny it.
Fitzgerald said in early April that the selectmen and Rossman were looking at a possible settlement. On Thursday, he said it was a matter of policy not to comment on pending suits. He also declined comment on the criminal charges being dropped.
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.
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, when recommending his appointment, said it was his hope that he would then be appointed as the permanent harbormaster.
Gayla Cawley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @GaylaCawley.