SOUTH PORTLAND — An outside investigator partially substantiated a resident’s public accusation that a city councilor used her political power to have police stop a person of color from writing negative social media posts about the councilor.

Tawny Alvarez, an attorney with the Verrill law firm in Portland, concluded that a police officer was unjustified in issuing a cease harassment notice to Sarah Williams based on social media posts about Councilor Katelyn Bruzgo. Alvarez determined that the posts didn’t constitute actual intimidation, confrontation or threat of physical force under state law.

Whether the cease harassment notice was issued because Williams is a person of color is unclear, Alvarez wrote in her report, which was released Thursday afternoon by City Manager Scott Morelli.

Brooke Bolduc, Williams’ roommate, made the accusation against Bruzgo during the public comment segment of a City Council meeting held on Zoom last October. Bruzgo and her wife, Naomi Hall, operate Omi’s Coffee Shop on Cottage Road. It was Hall who sought the cease harassment notice.

“I find the contention Brooke Bolduc made at the City Council meeting to be substantiated in part,” Alvarez wrote. “There was insufficient evidence to justify the issuance of a cease harassment notice against Sarah Williams.”

Alvarez continued, “Whether the cease harassment notice was directed at Sarah Williams because of (their) race is unclear, but Naomi Hall was aware of Sarah Williams’ race based on social media images as well as real life interactions.”

When Bolduc spoke during the Oct. 12 council meeting, she said “the police were called to our house over what basically equates to a bad Yelp review.” Williams’ posts included a story about bad service they had received at the coffee shop and accusations they had heard about Omi’s being transphobic, which means showing dislike of or prejudice toward transsexual or transgender people.

“I’m Black,” Bolduc said. “I find it very disturbing and upsetting that someone who runs on a platform of equality would basically weaponize their power both politically or rather racially to terrorize people in our community.”

Bolduc also said, “I find it completely inappropriate that she would weaponize the police against Black and Brown people living in this community, and there’s been a complete lack of apology or any restitution for this.”

Bolduc asked the council to look into the matter. Other residents who spoke during the meeting on other matters said they were disturbed by the accusation and urged the council to investigate. Then-Mayor Misha Pride and the rest of the council felt obligated to act and hired an outside investigator.

The cease harassment notice was issued by Officer Steven Connors, who died by suicide on Nov. 8, according to official city posts on Facebook. As a result, Alvarez based her investigation primarily on interviews with and documents provided by Bruzgo, Hall, Williams and Bolduc.

Connors met with Hall at the police department on Sept. 17, when she reported “being harassed on social media by a former employee and a former customer,” Alvarez wrote. Mylo Nonni also received a cease harassment notice but didn’t participate in the investigation beyond an initial interview.

After Bruzgo met with Connors on Sept. 22, she decided not to seek a cease harassment notice, but Hall continued with the process, submitting a request with a statement of events similar to Bruzgo’s written account, the investigator noted. Connors delivered a notice to Williams on Sept. 23.

“I find that Officer Connors was aware of Katie Bruzgo’s involvement in the matter and aware that (she) is a city councilor,” Alvarez wrote. “Calling an entity transphobic is not harassment. … It is an opinion based on an experience.”

Based on her findings, Alvarez concluded that Williams didn’t threaten Hall, Bruzgo or their coffee shop, and that Hall was acting on behalf of herself, Bruzgo and the coffee shop when she sought the cease harassment notice.

Efforts to contact Bolduc and Williams were unsuccessful. Bruzgo didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Mayor Deqa Dahlac declined to speak beyond a statement issued by Morelli.

According to the statement, “Bruzgo did not abuse any power or authority she had/has as a city councilor when her wife went to the police about the social media activity she believed to be harassing. … Individuals (and their spouses) who serve on the City Council do not lose their rights as private citizens to avail themselves of help from the police when they believe necessary.”

The city’s statement also noted that Alvarez “found no clear evidence that racial bias was a factor when Councilor Bruzgo’s spouse requested – and the South Portland Police Department issued – the protection from harassment notice.”

The cost of the investigation was not available Thursday.

Bolduc’s complaint triggered an internal review by Interim Police Chief James DiGianvittorio, who determined that the protection from harassment notice should be revoked and an apology issued to Williams. That was done Tuesday, according to the city’s statement.

The statement noted that a cease harassment notice is not a civil or criminal charge, citation or fine. “It is a warning to cease certain behavior or else further proceedings may ensue. … Sarah Williams was never charged with or cited for a crime or civil violation.”

The statement continued, “That said, the South Portland Police Department takes seriously its authority to issue such notices and the importance of issuing them only when legally justified. While Maine police officers receive training on issuance of such notices when they train at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, Chief DiGianvittorio has instituted some refreshers on the same and reminders to South Portland police officers about the complexities of incidents involving social media posts.”

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