Urbana nearing deal with former staffer
URBANA — A legal dispute between Urbana and a former employee is quickly approaching a resolution in a settlement agreement that favors the city.
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Both sides have agreed to drop their claims, and former city accounting supervisor Liz Walden has agreed to pay back $4,164.93 in disputed comp time payments she received between 2006 and 2013, her attorney said on Wednesday.
Neither the city nor Walden is admitting fault or liability in any of the claims the two sides made, and both parties have agreed to pay their own attorneys’ fees.
Mayor Laurel Prussing was traveling to China on Wednesday and unavailable for comment, but she did release a statement: It is unusual for the plaintiff in the lawsuit to end up paying the defendant, Prussing noted, and while some complain about the legal costs of defending the city, “our lawyers did an excellent job.”
“This was the most expeditious and ultimately the lowest cost alternative for the city,” Prussing said in the statement.
Walden was asking for “nearly $500,000” and filed complaints in three different venues, according to Prussing. Now all of that has been dropped.
“Simply put, defending the city in court is no different than paying for emergency snow removal or filling potholes,” Prussing said in the statement. “All are examples of basic costs of operation which can be minimized but not avoided.”
Walden brought the lawsuit against the city in August 2013 after she had been dismissed from her job earlier that summer as accounting supervisor in the city’s finance department. She argued that she had been inappropriately classified as an “at-will” employee, a designation that allowed Prussing to release her with no explanation required.
About 30 city employees are included as “at-will” employees, and they must be reappointed by the mayor each year to keep their jobs. Prussing last summer chose not to reappoint Walden after 24 years on the job.
Walden’s husband, former Chief Administrative Officer Bruce Walden, was similarly not reappointed by Prussing in 2007. In her complaint, Walden alleged the dismissals were politically motivated.
She consequently sued for her job with full back-pay and benefits — an issue which is now moot because Walden has since found full-time employment in a comparable job, according to her attorney Glenn Stanko.
“At that point, she had no real incentive to try to get her old position with the city back,” Stanko said.
It became an economic and emotional decision for Walden, too, he added. The city filed the counterclaim that Walden inappropriately collected the $4,164.93 in compensatory time to which she was not entitled — although Stanko maintains that the comp time was legitimate, it would have cost Walden more than that in legal expenses to defend in court.
“There’s a relatively small amount in dispute,” Stanko said. “She was going to have to spend a lot more to defend those claims. The city was insistent in that part of the settlement that she pay back that amount.”
The public nature of the lawsuit also weighed heavily.
“The litigation and the publicity and the allegations that came with the lawsuit were taking an emotional toll on Liz (Walden), and she just reached the point where she didn’t want to be a part of it anymore,” Stanko said.
The settlement agreement is nearly final. The two parties are just waiting for Judge Tom Difanis to sign off on part of the settlement for which Walden agreed to drop the complaints she filed against the city with the Illinois Department of Labor, Stanko said.
Still hanging is the city’s inclusion of Walden’s former boss, then-Comptroller Ron Eldridge, in the lawsuit. Along with the disputed comp time that Walden had collected, the city alleged that Eldridge collected $28,042.29 in payments for which he was not eligible.
Stanko said it seemed clear that the city was preparing to move ahead with that litigation, and Walden had agreed as part of the settlement to testify in any claim the city would bring against Eldridge.
The situation has prompted two city council members to call for changes to the city’s at-will system. Alderwoman Diane Marlin, D-Ward 7, and Alderman Eric Jakobsson, D-Ward 2, want to reduce the number of at-will employees from 30 to about 10.
They also want the city to complete a workforce climate survey. They worry that the at-will system has caused strife in city hall.
The two had been holding off on their proposals until after the Walden lawsuit was resolved.
Urbana's spending on outside attorneys
The city of Urbana’s spending on outside attorneys topped $400,000 on the final day of the fiscal year. The vast overspending (budgeters had planned for $8,780 in special legal expenses) prompted city officials to bump that portion of the budget to $175,000 in the new fiscal year.
Of the last fiscal year’s spending, the city paid $129,873.75 to defend itself in the lawsuit brought by Liz Walden last August. All of that amount went to St. Louis-based law firm The Lowenbaum Partnership, which the city often uses as legal representation in labor-related disputes like Walden’s and union negotiations.
A $6,800 payment to public accounting firm Brown Smith Wallace on June 30 brought the total for last year to $403,134.17, according to city documents.
Mayor Laurel Prussing has said that last year was a particularly litigation-heavy year: The city was negotiating with all three of its labor unions while simultaneously dealing with court proceedings involving Walden and Carle Foundation Hospital.
Budgeters hope next year won’t be as expensive — the new budget includes $75,000 to cover attorneys fees related to the Carle lawsuit and $100,000 for miscellaneous items that might come up during the year.