By MIKE CHAIKEN
Last week began with the council meeting once again with attorney Michael Rose behind closed doors to determine what to do about claims the mayor had sexually harassed Councilor Jodi Zils Gagne.
And as the week went on, the issue exploded when Gagne’s husband Steve Gagne posted an article on the website of his online radio station Bristol Beat (since removed) detailing a conflict between the mayor, himself, and his wife over a decision to invite Ellen Zoppo-Sassu as a guest on his station’s Sunday morning talk show. Steve Gagne also posted screenshots of the texts between himself and Mayor Ken Cockayne (also removed), in which the mayor fired off expletive after expletive regarding Steve Gagne’s decision. Within the texts, the mayor also invoked the Republican Town Committee, saying they were not happy with Steve Gagne’s decision. (Steve Gagne is not a member of the RTC.)
Zoppo-Sassu was—and once again—Cockayne’s Democratic opponent for the mayor’s seat.
Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 7.
The morning after the special meeting of the council on Sept. 25, in which Cockayne did not attend, acting mayor Anthony D’Amato reported via email, “The only comment I’ll make at this time is that we (the council) are extending time for Michael Rose to talk to the mayor and other necessary city employees. We have put forth a deadline of when we would like to have Rose’s inquiry finished up, that being Oct. 2 as I would like to resolve this matter in swift order.”
The inquiry was initiated following a public apology Cockayne made to Councilor Zils Gagne in the midst of the August city council meeting. Following the mayor’s apology, Councilor Calvin Brown asked what necessitated the public comment and inferred it might be tied to another claim of sexual harassment. Following Brown’s query, personnel director Diane Ferguson cited Zils Gagne as having complained about sexual harassment.
Other than the slip by the personnel director, officially, nothing has been said on the part of the council, Councilor Zils Gagne, or Cockayne as to what form the harassment came in.
Last week, however, Gagne’s husband Steve opted to offer an explanation as to some of what was going on behind the scenes with the mayor.
Steve Gagne said the article posted on Bristol Beat’s website and shared on social media was intended to “share the truth about how this war with the city’s mayor never had a chance to end peacefully, due to covert actions of Mayor Cockayne’s family members and friends along with the mayor denying any wrong doing.”
Gagne wrote, “For the Nov. 6 (2016) episode of The Beat’s newest talk show… I was attempting to book the chairmen of each party’s town committee. Earlier that week, I had locked down Republican Town Committee chairman Jeff Caggiano… The Democratic Town Committee chairman, Dean Kilbourne, was not available for the Sunday morning show. As a media organization, we are expected to be non-biased toward any one political party.”
Things flared up with the mayor, when Steve Gagne reached out to Ellen Zoppo Sassu, at the suggestion of Democratic Councilor Brown, to sit in for Kilbourne.
When the mayor heard about Zoppo-Sassu’s inclusion on the show, Steve Gagne said the mayor made it clear in his series of texts that he was angry about the decision.
“The mayor attempted to strong arm or bully me into not having Ellen Zoppo on ‘The State of the City,’ and this displayed an arrogance and disrespect toward a business owner and family member,” said Steve Gagne in the article. “When I step foot into The Beat, my business, I enter into a role for which I cannot bend my moral compass to satisfy even a distant in-law relative. As a politician, the mayor should have a thicker skin than he has or maybe politics is not something he can handle.”
Following Steve Gagne’s article, in a request for a response, Cockayne wrote via an email, “This is a family matter and it’s a shame it is being played out in public. It’s unfortunate that things like this can be used and manipulated and affect an election.”
“I’m hoping this will play out in private but if not I will have a full accounting at a later time,” said Cockayne. “I will continue to focus on what’s best for Bristol as I have done during my two terms and continue to make Bristol a better place to live, work and play.”
By Friday, Gagne said in an email that the series of articles he intended to write about what happened with the mayor will not be published. He also said no more negative comments would be shared by either parties and there would be no more fighting.
“We are all hoping to put this matter behind us and keep moving forward,” said Steve Gagne.
After an August special meeting about the matter, Councilor Zils Gagne (who is the mayor’s second cousin) read a statement about the matter, “This whole situation began as a family fight that the mayor unfortunately brought into politics. After attempts to try to damage my reputation in my party, the mayor then brought this issue into City Hall and indeed into council chambers… What occurred was enough for me to inquire to the city’s (human resources) director, as to possibly appointing an investigator for a claim to be made against the mayor, with me as the victim.”
“In the meantime, the mayor came to me, and we worked it out amongst the two of us. One thing the mayor promised to do was to publicly apologize to me,” said Councilor Zils-Gagne in August.
At the special meeting August, the council voted to bring in Rose to investigate the incident between the mayor and Councilor Zils-Gagne.
Rose has been brought as a special attorney before. Earlier in the year, he investigated another report of harassment regarding the mayor. Rose, in a subsequent report, said he did not think sexual harassment between the mayor and an unnamed employee occurred “per se.” The report also investigated an incident where the mayor harassed corporate counsel Richard Lacey.
After the release of more explicit details from the report were provided to the council (which were not provided to the public and were not released following Freedom of Information requests), the entire council censured Cockayne based on those details. Cockayne subsequently issued a public apology regarding the findings of the Rose report.
A few months later, Noella Bates, the unnamed employee in Rose’s report, stepped forward and filed a civil suit—now in federal court— against the mayor and several city employees.
The suit filed by Bates claims that since April 2011, the city worker has been “repeatedly subjected to a sexually hostile and discriminatory working environment.”
In particular, the suit claims Cockayne made sexual advances, requested favors, engaged in conduct of a sexual nature toward the plaintiff, and sexually harassed Bates.
After the suit was filed, Cockayne issued a statement refuting the claims made by Bates.
Comments? Email mchaiken@BristolObserver.com.