Judge denies effort to dismiss suit against Urbana
URBANA — A dispute between former city accounting supervisor Liz Walden and the city of Urbana will continue, after a judge denied the city's motion to dismiss the case on Friday morning.
Walden claims she was wrongfully terminated by the city in a controversial move by Mayor Laurel Prussing in June. She's asking the court for her old job back with full back pay and benefits.
Champaign County Presiding Judge Tom Difanis said during the Friday morning hearing that the question going forward is not with the mayor's authority to appoint or not appoint at-will employees to their city jobs, but rather how Walden was put in a situation where she worked — or not — at the pleasure of the mayor.
"I think the issue going forward is how did Ms. Walden end up in this position," Difanis said.
He gave the city's lawyers 30 days to further state its case. The next hearing has not been scheduled.
The city has retained attorneys from just outside St. Louis to argue its case. Corey Franklin argued on Friday that the matter was a "dead issue" because Walden's employment is at the sole discretion of the mayor.
He said Walden's argument that she should have been covered under civil service protections is incorrect.
"We believe this is a very straightforward case," Franklin said.
Prussing did not attend Friday's hearing. Other city officials were present at Friday's hearing in the public seating area.
Prussing has the authority annually to reappoint or not reappoint about 30 "at-will" employees literally at her will. She is not required to cite any reason for dismissal. Other employees are covered by the city's civil service rules, which are overseen by the civil service commission.
Walden's dismissal drew criticism from some city council members and former Comptroller Bill DeJarnette, who resigned the same night that Walden was not reappointed to her position as accounting supervisor. During his public resignation, DeJarnette cited a "toxic" work environment in city hall.
Walden's complaint alleges that DeJarnette believed Walden was not being reappointed because she "had the wrong last name" and because Prussing believed Walden had been involved in the campaign of an opposing mayoral candidate.
In her complaint, Walden cites the political affiliations of herself and her husband, Bruce Walden, whom Prussing did not allow to return as the city's chief administrative officer in 2007. The Waldens are Republicans, according to Liz Walden's lawsuit, and Prussing is a Democrat.
Walden's attorney, Glenn Stanko, argued that her job was unjustly classified as an appointed position in 2009 — a move that eliminated employee protections provided in the civil service rules and made Walden subject to the mayor's appointing powers.
Stanko said officials should first have needed to ask the civil service commission to do that.
"They didn't do that," Stanko said. "They just took her out of coverage that she'd been under for 17 years" prior.
Franklin said that is a "shocking" assertion, and that city officials followed all the rules prescribed by city and state law.
"The matter is very simple," he said. "She was not appointed to a position by the mayor."
On Dec. 2, the city council confirmed three mayoral appointments to fill gaps left by the summer's events. Rich Hentschel, who had been hired as a temporary employee to cover comptroller duties after DeJarnette's resignation, was officially appointed to the position earlier this month.
Hentschel has a long career in public finance, including stints for the city of Bloomington, Lake County and the National Park Service.
Matthew Dillon, who has 20 years of experience in private sector accounting, was appointed as deputy comptroller.
DeJarnette had been acting as comptroller and maintained responsibilities from his older job as the city's information technologies head. Sanford Hess was appointed as IT director on Dec. 2. He has two decades' experience at CGI, an international software company, and is well known locally for his role in operating the Art Theater in Champaign.