Jim Dey: Mayor's lawyers respond in Walden dismissal case

Jim Dey: Mayor's lawyers respond in Walden dismissal case

There are two sides to almost every argument — that's why we have horse races and court cases.

Take the nasty personnel fight that broke out in Urbana back in June. Mayor Laurel Prussing summarily dismissed — by not reappointing — Liz Walden from her longtime job as an accounting supervisor in the city's finance department.

In August, Walden filed a lawsuit in Champaign County Circuit Court that alleged she was improperly dismissed because, as a civil service employee, she was fired without cause.

Walden's lawyer, Glenn Stanko of Champaign, challenged Prussing's claim that Walden was among roughly 20 high-ranking city employees who hold their positions by annual mayoral appointment.

This past week, the St. Louis lawyers who represent Prussing filed their response, and they, not surprisingly, urge the court to dismiss Walden's request to be reinstated to her old job.

Whitney Cooney, one of Prussing's lawyers, contends that Prussing "possessed the unfettered authority to refrain from reappointing" Walden because Walden's position "fell outside the category of jobs covered" under civil service. It asks that Walden's lawsuit be dismissed and that she be ordered to reimburse the city for "its fees and costs."

Although the case was initially sent to the office of Presiding Circuit Judge Thomas Difanis, it has not been formally assigned to any of the county's judges. No hearing date has been set.

Whether Walden will be deemed a civil service employee or a mayoral appointee will depend on how the changing circumstances of her 24-year tenure with the city are interpreted. Both sides appear to agree on what those changing circumstances were, although they draw differing conclusions about what they mean.

For instance, in her role as an accounting supervisor, did Walden serve as a head of the financial services division within the city's finance department?

Walden was named to an accounting clerk's position in 1989, and she was promoted in 1992 to accounting supervisor.

Prussing's response acknowledges that "the accounting supervisor position did not appear on mayor appointment lists."

"Regardless, as a head of the financial services division, the accounting supervisor's position fell within a class of jobs subject to mayoral appointment and confirmation by the city council," the filing states.

Prussing's response states that Walden's position was reclassified as a management post in 1996, "meaning she no longer maintained eligibility to receive overtime pay or compensatory time for hours working in excess of 40 in any given workweek."

"As a function of her duties, (Walden) headed a city division and managed two other employees" and was given generous salary increases, the filing contends.

Following an increase in Walden's pay grade in 2009, Prussing's response states that "the city realized that despite working as head of the financial services division," Walden had been "inadvertently left off the mayor's annual appointments list in the years following her promotion."

The lawsuit alleges that Walden's name then was added to the appointment list and that she was reappointed every year until this past June.

Supporting documents filed along with the response include personnel documents the city contends bolster its claims. They include a 1996 memo from former personnel manager Ronald Gremore to Walden informing her of a pay increase, her ineligibility for overtime or compensatory time off and "management benefits such as 100 percent tuition assistance and 192 hours of vacation."

A 2009 document signed by personnel manager Vacellia Clark informed Walden of another boost in her pay status that the city contends was coincidental to her name being placed on the mayor's appointment list.

"(Walden's) misguided assessment of her employment status failed to overcome the incontrovertible facts demonstrating that her position fell within a class of jobs subject to mayoral appointment and approval by the city council," the Prussing response states.

The 2009 date is crucial in this dispute. While Walden's name was added to the mayoral appointment list, Walden's lawyer argues that her position was "unilaterally" reclassified because the reclassification was not approved by the city's civil service commission. Walden also argues that she was never informed she was a division head, a position that Prussing's lawyers emphatically reject.

Their response includes documents Walden signed as the supervisor of the financial services division, a position that reported to former Comptroller Ron Eldridge.

The dispute, however, is about personalities as much as it is about law.

Walden is married to Bruce Walden, the city administrative officer whom Prussing ousted in 2007 during her first term as mayor.

The personal animosity between Prussing and Bruce Walden is a matter of common knowledge, and Liz Walden alleged in her lawsuit that she was told she was being dismissed because she "had the wrong last name."

The controversy over the dismissal caused an uproar in City Hall. Walden asked city council members to intervene to save her job, but council members said they were powerless to do so.

Alderman Eric Jakobsson and Alderwoman Diane Marlin subsequently drafted an ordinance that would block a number of current appointive city employees from being dismissed without cause. That legislation is on hold while the city addresses Walden's lawsuit.

The Walden dismissal also prompted city Comptroller Bill DeJarnette to resign in protest over what he called the "toxic environment" for employees created by the mayor. Prussing rejected that claim, contending that the work atmosphere in City Hall is problem-free.

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