Selectwoman Irene Wrenner is suing the town of Essex for refusing to share documents from last year’s sexual harassment investigation that began after she alleged “gender-based unprofessional conduct” by a high-level town employee, court records show.
Though the case is a public records dispute at heart, Wrenner’s decision to sue effectively outs herself as a victim of alleged sexual harassment. Undoubtedly one of Essex’s most outspoken public officials, she said was hesitant to go public for fear of retribution from staff and her fellow board members.
But Wrenner said she was emboldened by the #MeToo movement, the international push against sexual assault and harassment in the wake of dozens of highly publicized misconduct scandals. She says the town mishandled its investigation, and she’s suing to improve the odds for other victims.
“I held out for a really long time hoping that the sexual harassment I was experiencing would stop,” she told The Reporter on Tuesday. “That the person I’ve accused would realize that we’re in the 21st century. That men shouldn’t behave like that. But nothing changed. It’s time.”
Wrenner’s three-page complaint, filed by her attorney, Pietro Lynn, on May 17, says the town violated the Public Records Act by denying her Feb. 1 request for the private investigator’s billing and reports, claiming those records are held at the town attorney’s office and therefore not public.
Wrenner’s lawsuit argues otherwise. It says the town must share the records or at the very least describe the ones being withheld. It asks the town to comply with her requests, cover attorney fees and costs and “all other relief that the court deems just and equitable.”
Reached Tuesday, unified manager Evan Teich said the town will address the suit “as the law requires.” He said he couldn’t comment further.
The court records clarify what has remained a highly secretive process. Town officials remained mute on the allegations earlier this year as The Reporter investigated the undisclosed claims and have spoken little of the matter since.
The topic did earn some airtime at a selectboard meeting in April, when Wrenner said she couldn’t support Max Levy’s bid for chair, in part because he denied her request to hold an executive session on the investigation process.
Levy said Wrenner needed to consult the town manager to add items to the agenda. Wrenner told him it wasn’t appropriate to approach the town manager with this request.
Levy acted as the selectboard’s go-between with its lawyer, Bill Ellis, throughout the investigation, informing members of Ellis’ decision in letters and asking them to maintain discretion given the complaint’s “personal nature.”
Public records obtained by The Reporter show the claims trace back to an October 2017 email in which the complainant, now identified as Wrenner, told an undisclosed party that at least two women were subjected to the town official’s “abusive” behavior. Names of the accused, the complainant and the email’s recipient were all redacted.
Levy sought guidance from Ellis, who hired private investigator Bill Burgess. Wrenner’s lawsuit says she felt uncomfortable relaying her experience to a male investigator after feeling victimized by a male employee. The town denied her request for a female investigator, the lawsuit says.
Wrenner said she spoke with Burgess for several hours, and documents show he interviewed at least one town employee before sharing his final report with Ellis, who informed Wrenner and the accused of his decision in late December.
“Taking all facts you allege as true,” Ellis wrote to Wrenner, “they are insufficient to establish that [redacted] sexually harassed you.”
Wrenner’s lawsuit questions whether Burgess was qualified to investigate discrimination, harassment or gender-based complaints. It also questions Ellis’ objectivity since he directed the investigation, hired Burgess and participated in the findings despite a “lengthy history of working and socializing” with the accused.
She believes the alleged conduct defied multiple clauses in the town’s sexual harassment policy. She said she’s seeking the report to understand the investigative process and ensure Burgess accurately captured her testimony.
“Why was I not being allowed to see my words as they were taken down?” she asked Tuesday.
Ellis called the report an “attorney work document” in his refusal and cited a similar reason for denying The Reporter’s request.
In an email Tuesday, Levy said the board discussed the lawsuit with Teich and Ellis during an executive session Monday night. Wrenner recused herself. The board then directed Teich to work on the town’s defense, and Ellis said he’s helping the town with its response.
Ellis didn’t have much to add, but his stance is clearly outlined in emails to Wrenner. He said her request to fact check her statements is inappropriate and that she’s “obviously dissatisfied” with the result of the investigation. He suggested she pursue other options.
Wrenner knows the decision about her allegations won’t be reversed. She said she hesitated before filing the lawsuit because she didn’t want to cost taxpayers more money; the town has spent over $11,000 on the matter to date. But she said it’s important to “put a price tag” on what happens when the town tries to protect some at the expense of others, and she wants to ensure the process is robust and has integrity.
“What we’ve all seen is nothing changes and that people continue to get away with unacceptable behavior because there’s this code of silence,” she said. “I don’t want to be part of the code of silence that allows this to continue.”
And as for how her reputation might impact how people perceive her claims: “That’s on them,” she said.