Urbana sues Walden, ex-comptroller over comp time
URBANA — A counterclaim against two former city employees alleges that they were fudging time sheets and, together, ultimately accepted $32,000 more in payment than they were entitled to.
The lawyer for one of those former employees said Monday that the city's counterclaim in former accounting supervisor Liz Walden's lawsuit against Urbana is "a rather desperate attempt by Urbana to browbeat Liz into dismissing her lawsuit against it." Walden sued for her job with full backpay and benefits after she was not reappointed to her position last summer by Mayor Laurel Prussing.
Prussing said Monday that the investigation by the city's team of outside attorneys shows that Walden's claim for back pay and benefits is antithetical to what was actually going on. Prussing said Walden is demanding the city pay an amount near $500,000.
"No, she owes us money in our opinion," Prussing said.
The new claim alleges that Walden and her supervisor, former Comptroller Ron Eldridge, were taking compensatory time when they knew they were not entitled to it in their managerial positions. According to the city's documents filed last week in Champaign County, the two logged time into the city's payroll system in a way that reflected they had worked a full day when they were actually absent for all or part of the day.
The claim alleges Walden did that even though her job had previously been reclassified, she had been given a pay raise and she was informed that typical benefits like overtime and compensatory time no longer applied.
Therefore, those absences should have been deducted from vacation or sick time balances, the city argues. Instead, Walden and Eldridge were paid for those artificially-inflated time-off balances when they left the city's employment — $4,164.93 for Walden and $28,042.29 for Eldridge between 2006 and 2013, according to the documents filed with the court.
The city is asking a judge to throw out Walden's lawsuit and make her repay that money to the city in addition to the city's attorneys fees. Eldridge has now been pulled into the legal dispute, too.
Eldridge could not be reached for comment on Monday. Walden's attorney, Glenn Stanko, said Monday that there's nothing wrong with what the two were doing.
"Comp time for exempt employees is perfectly legal," Stanko said. "Urbana has no policy that says its supervisor may not give employees comp time."
Stanko said the counterclaim is a "disappointing" attempt to get the upper hand in the lawsuit. He further suggested that the practice is common throughout the city, and that the fact that only Walden's and Eldridge's names were brought into the claim shows city officials' intentions.
"You kind of get the idea of what's going on," Stanko said. "It's disappointing. I think people will see it for what it is. It appears to be an effort to somehow muddy Liz Walden's name."
Walden sued the city last year after not being reappointed to her position as accounting supervisor, a job she had been in for 24 years. Her lawsuit claims that she was inappropriately classified as an "at-will" employee, one of about 30 staff members who must be reappointed annually by the mayor to keep their jobs.
Her lawsuit claims it amounts to a political firing six years after Walden's husband, Bruce Walden, was dismissed as the city's chief administrative officer.
Stanko said the city's counterclaim is another example of that.
"What you see is a continuation in the politics of personal destruction that comes out of the mayor's office," Stanko said.
Prussing said she was not aware of the alleged deceptive time-keeping going on in the city's finance department at the time she decided not to reappoint Liz Walden. But it's an example of the trust issues Prussing had with Walden.
"I was not aware of it, but due to earlier things, I did not want to appoint her because I had an issue with trusting her," Prussing said. "And I made that very clear."
Prussing also defended the city's use of The Lowenbaum Partnership law firm on Monday. She said the city discovered the time practices "because of our lawyers, who are ranked No. 1 in the United States in employment law. They did a thorough investigation, and this is what was found."
Urbana's use of the St. Louis-based law firm has come under scrutiny lately. The city's payments to it have grown to more than $260,000 this fiscal year as city officials deal with the Walden lawsuit and negotiations with three labor unions.