Kadner: Fired Dolton workers sue for $300,000
By Phil Kadner firstname.lastname@example.org November 14, 2013 7:34PM
Dolton Mayor Riley Rogers (right) speaks with village manager Clem Balanoff (left) earlier this year. Three former employees appointed by Riley have sued the village for what they say are politically motivated firings. | File photo
Updated: December 16, 2013 6:26AM
Just a few months ago, I wrote a column about the financial struggles of Dolton, where newly elected Mayor Riley Rogers was trying to head off a municipal bankruptcy.
Rogers said that upon taking office, he discovered that the village owed about $3 million in outstanding bills. Temporary village manager Clem Balanoff said the village had as little as $25,000 in its bank account in May.
This week, I was contacted by Patrick Walsh, an attorney representing three former Dolton employees appointed by Riley who have filed a lawsuit against the village for “an amount in excess of $300,000.”
Carol Dobbins was the director of human resources for Dolton, LynnToi Lawson was director of communications, and Duane Muhammad was director of media. All were appointed to their posts May 7 by the mayor, according to the lawsuit.
On Aug. 19, the village board discussed approving their hiring and split 3-3, with Riley casting the deciding vote in favor of the three, according to the lawsuit.
It says the board then voted Oct. 21 to dismiss the employees, who were “political supporters of Mayor Rogers prior to and during their employment with the village” and there never were any claims by anyone that they didn’t do their jobs.
Before Oct. 21, trustees Stanley Brown, Robert Hunt, Tiffany Henyard, Sabrina Smith and Cathern Bedell (all named as defendants) “collectively conceived a scheme whereby they agreed to terminate” the three employees because of their association with Rogers and the mayor having hired them, the lawsuit claims.
It says Brown went so far as to state the dismissals were politically motivated.
After obtaining a copy of the lawsuit, I called Rogers to ask him how much the three employees were being paid before their termination. He said Muhammad was making $55,000 a year, while Dobbins and Lawson each had salaries of about $45,000.
“We had people in these spots before, and they weren’t as qualified as the people I appointed and they were making even more money,” Rogers said, after I suggested that perhaps a village struggling to make its payroll didn’t need the expense of three political appointees.
“We had no updated employee records,” Rogers said of the village. “We needed a person in place to maintain our employee records because those records were in total confusion.”
He said Muhammad, who previously had worked for a Chicago TV station for years, was in charge of producing video coverage of village board meetings broadcast over Dolton’s local cable channel along with mayoral ribbon cuttings, committee meetings and other public events.
Muhammad told me he worked for WMAQ-TV (Channel 5) in Chicago for 20 years as an engineer and his salary in Dolton was $60,000 a year.
“You couldn’t even tell what was going on at board meetings before he came here, and the quality of the video production now (since he left) is terrible,” Rogers said.
For the sake of argument, I’m willing to accept the mayor’s contention that the three people he appointed were qualified and did their jobs well. But I was there when Rogers pleaded for help because Dolton was facing a financial crisis and might not be able to make payroll.
While you can make a case that employee record-keeping is essential to a municipality, I think the need for an audio-visual expert and a communications director are debatable.
“We no longer have a village newsletter,” Rogers told me.
Village newsletters can contain important information for residents about water bills, garbage collection, license fees, vehicle stickers and community events or other programs of interest. Too often, in my experience, they are public relations devices for elected officials, who use them to tout their personal achievements.
During a telephone call, Dobbins explained that her role with the village was much broader than that of a human resources director.
“I also acted as the purchasing director,” she said, explaining that she centralized all purchasing within the village out of her office, created a purchasing form and monitored a hand-scanner that kept tabs on when employees came to work and left.
“I saved the village $7,000 a year on a copying machine contract and replaced a bunch of old copiers that weren’t working,” she said.
Before taking the village job, Dobbins said she was a licensed broker and office manager for an insurance broker.
“I actually took a pay cut to come to the village,” she said. “I was ready for a job change and wanted to make a contribution to the place where I live. I didn’t like the way things had been done previously and knew the village needed some changes.”
As for being a political patronage appointee, Dobbins said the extent of her support for the mayor was putting a campaign sign on her lawn.
“He came by one day and asked if I would put a sign in the lawn,” she said. “I didn’t know him before that. I have a rather large lawn on a corner lot, so it’s a good place for a sign, and I said it was all right because I thought the village needed change.”
Despite that being the extent of her political efforts on Rogers’ behalf, Dobbins now believes her firing was political. She said her contact with trustees was nearly nonexistent after she was hired, and she never heard any of the trustees complain about her performance.
“I’ve never been unemployed before,” she said. “Now I have to find a job, and it’s not easy.”
There are always two sides to every story, but here’s what I know for sure. Dolton is in financial trouble, it hired three new employees and then fired them in less than six months. And now it’s facing a $300,000 lawsuit that it can’t afford.
Even if the village wins the lawsuit, there will be attorney fees involved.
If all of that weren’t bad enough, the new mayor and his village board are apparently at war.
Maybe someone thinks that’s a good thing. I really doubt it.