A former executive director is asking for a jury to decide if he was wrongly terminated by the Port of Coupeville.
Oak Harbor attorney Chris Skinner filed the lawsuit on behalf of Forrest Rambo in Island County Superior Court Sept. 20.
Rambo, citing state whistleblower laws, alleges he was fired because he questioned the legality of the port’s harbormaster also being a paying tenant of the port-owned Coupeville Wharf.
His lawsuit comes after an initial tort claim sent to the port last February seeking $120,000 in damages.
Rambo was fired by the port in September 2016 in a 2-1 vote by the board. He had served less than one year of his three-year contract.
Port commissioners John Mishasek and William Bell voted against then board president Mike Diamanti.
Diamanti later resigned from the board.
Rambo alleges his termination was an act of retaliation in response to his “continuous efforts” to get an answer from the port’s attorney.
In the lawsuit, filed last week, Mishasek and Bell are individually named as defendants along with the port district.
Mishasek, who serves as the board president, did not return a request for comment.
In a response to Rambo’s initial tort claim, attorneys representing the port allege Rambo doesn’t have any standing in his whistleblower complaint and maintain he was fired because of his “failure to take direction … rude, hostile and bullying behavior toward employees and his overall incompetency in performing his duties.”
“If required to testify in court, we believe these employees would state that their reason for leaving employment from the port was Mr. Rambo’s unprofessional, rude and unreasonable conduct directed toward them,” the response states.
The crux of the debate, and the catalyst for events leading up to Rambo’s firing, he believes, is the two commissioner’s attempts at hindering any investigation into a potential conflict of interest with the harbormaster.
According to the lawsuit, “On Aug. 27, 2016, (Rambo) obtained a written opinion, via email, from the port’s attorney Grant Weed, wherein Mr. Weed expressed his professional opinion that ‘a strong argument could be made’ that (the harbormaster) was a municipal officer …” and that assuming the harbormaster is a municipal officer, then the state law prohibiting a municipal officer from having a beneficial interest in any contract or lease would apply.
“In his Aug. 27, 2016 correspondence to (Rambo), Mr. Weed warned (Rambo) in his capacity as the port’s executive director, that the port’s failure to embark upon a specific, statutory procedure to determine if (the harbormaster’s) lease with the port was valid and not contrary to law, ‘could expose the port to audit and could render the lease void.’”
Rambo said he is including slander and libel allegations in his lawsuit in response to emails and written statements between the harbormaster and port commissioners.
The harbormaster complained about him and alleged he was harassing her.
He named the two commissioners as individual defendants because of the way they treated him, he said.
“The only one who understood the gravity of the situation was Mike Diamanti,” Rambo said. “The crux of the matter was we needed a definite legal opinion.
“Out of all the candidates who applied (when Rambo was hired), I was the only one who had marina experience. As soon as I started asking questions (the harbormaster) got defensive.”
Current port Executive Director Chris Michalopoulos confirmed he’d received a summons last week.
While Michalopoulos wasn’t an employee at the time, he’s been apprised of the pending lawsuit and coordinated executive sessions about it since taking the position in May.
Asked if the port has addressed the concerns about a potential conflict of interest involving the harbormaster, Michalopoulos said he’s unaware of any such discussions.
“There haven’t been any conversations about a conflict of interest that I’ve witnessed,” Michalopoulos said.
“(The harbormaster’s) been doing her job and keeping it separate for 20 years.”
“She runs a very efficient wharf.”
Rambo’s lawsuit asks for a jury to determine relief for lost wages and benefits and future lost wages that would have been earned. He’s also asking for recovery of paid vacation time and comp hours he was not paid when he was fired.
In their initial response, the port said if Rambo decided to pursue litigation, it would make an offer of judgment in the amount of $1,000 plus attorney’s fees incurred to date.
“Accordingly, if Mr. Rambo loses on summary judgment or receives an award less than the offer, he will be responsible for the port’s reasonable attorney’s fees and costs incurred thereafter.”