Jim Dey: Prussing fiat may not be final

When Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing decided in June not to reappoint a longtime city employee to her post as an accounting supervisor, it was presented as a fait accompli.

The mayor contended that she alone had the power to reappoint a group of about 30 upper-level city employees each year and that her word is final.

City council members grumbled about the high-handed dismissal of Liz Walden, but ultimately acquiesced to Prussing's decision. They had no choice, they said.

On paper, it might look as if Prussing is correct. Then again, it also might depend on which piece of paper is being scrutinized; the mayor's power of appointment might not be as sweeping as she claims.

"Sometimes things are done in a customary way that doesn't really comply with the rules. ... It doesn't really become an issue until they are called on it," said Champaign lawyer Glenn Stanko. "Rules are messy things, just like facts are messy things for some people."

Stanko, who represents Walden, has filed a lawsuit against Urbana that seeks the reinstatement of the 24-year city employee. The city, which is represented by an outside lawyer, R. Michael Lowenbaum of St. Louis, has until Sept. 25 to file a written response.

No hearing date has been set for the case, which has been tentatively assigned to Circuit Judge Thomas Difanis.

Stanko's lengthy filing raises some interesting legal issues on his client's behalf as well as some salient facts that fill out the background of what he contends — and Prussing denies — is an illegal summary dismissal motivated by political animus.

First, the personal background:

There's bad blood between the Prussing and Walden clans.

Following election to her first term as mayor in 2005, Prussing removed Liz Walden's husband, longtime city administrative officer Bruce Walden, from his post. Now an administrator at the UI, Walden was viewed by many as a supporter of previous mayors who were Prussing's political foes — Republican Jeffrey Markland and Tod Satterthwaite, the Democratic incumbent Prussing defeated in a primary challenge.

According to the lawsuit, Prussing placed Bruce Walden on administrative leave in May 2007 through June 30, 2007, and did not reappoint him to the post for the fiscal year that began July 1, 2007.

She has repeatedly denied firing Walden, but the lawsuit states that Prussing "unilaterally terminated (Walden's) employment" without specifying her reasons or giving him "any opportunity to be heard."

Earlier this year, former city employee Les Stratton challenged Prussing in the Democratic mayoral primary election amid clear evidence that Satterthwaite and Walden were backing Stratton. The lawsuit alleges that Prussing decided to retaliate by firing Liz Walden.

The lawsuit alleges that Liz Walden was informed by her supervisor, Comptroller Bill DeJarnette, that he had attended a June 10 meeting with Prussing, mayoral Chief of Staff Mike Monson and city Human Resources Manager Vacellia Clark about Walden's reappointment.

According to the lawsuit, DeJarnette informed Walden that she was being dismissed because she "had the wrong last name" and that those present had without success "tried to talk Prussing out of it."

The lawsuit alleges that Liz Walden was subsequently informed that she would be "allowed to work for a couple of months" so she could search for another job. After Liz Walden went to the city council in an effort to save her job, she was told that Prussing had changed her mind about the extension and she would be out of a job as of July 1.

The dismissal caused a big flap in city hall, the biggest being DeJarnette's resignation in protest over what he claimed is a "toxic environment" created by the Prussing administration.

The personal nature of the dispute has been widely reported and discussed. It's what Stanko alleges concerning Walden's job status that will surprise many.

Civil service or mayoral appointee?

The gist of Stanko's complaint is:

— That Walden's job was not properly subject to mayoral reappointment because she is a civil service employee who cannot be dismissed without cause.

The lawsuit alleges that Walden was hired in 1989 under civil service rules to work as an account clerk and later was promoted under the same system to account supervisor. In both cases, the lawsuit alleges, "Walden took the required civil service examination and was appointed through the civil service process."

It was not until 2009, the lawsuit alleges, that human resources manager Clark "unilaterally" reclassified Walden's position from a civil service post to one requiring mayoral reappointment.

Stanko noted that Walden was never "informed that she was considered to be a division head," that her job duties and description did not change and that the reclassification was never approved by the city's civil service commission.

The result, Stanko contends, is that Clark's reclassification decision is "null and void" because Clark had "no power to unilaterally reclassify" Walden's job as appointive rather than civil service.

The lawsuit also notes that when the city reclassified a position in the police department from civil service to appointive it sought approval from the civil service commission and decided to "grandfather" the affected employee in under the old rules.

This perspective, of course, is Walden's. The city's lawyer will probably take a different view of the case. Regardless, Prussing's claim of being all-powerful on this issue is subject to dispute.

Walden is asking for her job back along with reimbursement of back pay and employee benefits.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or at 351-5369.

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