Ex-Prineville workers sue city over layoffs

By Rachael Scarborough King / The Bulletin
Published: July 13. 2007 5:00AM PST

PRINEVILLE — The former Prineville public works director and another employee who lost their jobs six months ago are suing the city, charging that they were fired for complaining about possibly unlawful practices like avoiding the public bidding process for million-dollar projects.

Former Public Works Director Jim Mole and former Public Works Administrative Assistant Samantha Waltjen are suing in Crook County Circuit Court for unlawful employment practices and wrongful discharge. They claim in the suit that their immediate dismissal in January was due to raising concerns about certain financial practices within the city government.

The plaintiffs are asking for at least $25,000 each in lost wages, benefits and bonuses; $150,000 each for “damages consisting of mental, emotional and physical distress”; and reinstatement to their former positions.

City officials have said in the past, and repeat in the city’s answer to the lawsuit, that Mole and Waltjen were laid off in an administrative restructuring that consolidated the public works department under what is now called the community development director’s position. The city’s filed response to the suit “denies each and every remaining allegation of plaintiffs’ Complaint and the whole thereof.”

Reached by phone Thursday, Mole said he filed the suit partly because he is still “completely in the dark” about why the decision was made to eliminate the jobs.

“I’ve always said that I really enjoyed working for the city of Prineville and, yeah, we would both like to have our jobs back,” Mole said. “We never really did understand why we were restructured to begin with — it was never explained to us.”

Mole added that he is now working as a project manager and estimator for a Bend corporation and still lives in Prineville.

Waltjen did not return calls for comment.

Mole and Waltjen’s attorney, Robert Hennagin, said they were acting as “whistle-blowers” when they brought up concerns with then-Assistant City Manager Jerry Gillham about transferring money within city departments and awarding large contracts without a public bidding process. Gillham is not a defendant in the lawsuit.

“It’s not only sad but shocking when I discover that public officials conduct themselves under a perception that they don’t have to follow the rules or abide by the law,” Hennagin said.

The lawsuit states that on two separate occasions Mole and Waltjen, who had regular weekly meetings with Gillham, disagreed with his position on certain practices. In November 2006, the suit says, Mole told Gillham that he thought it would violate city policies to transfer funds between city accounts in order to hire a new city employee. On Jan. 17, the day before Mole was let go, Gillham told Mole and Waltjen that he planned to divide a million-dollar public works project into different parts in order to avoid the public bidding process, the suit alleges.

State law requires that large public works projects include a competitive public bid process.

The project involved work on the city’s water supply, the suit states, and Gillham said he intended to split it up so that each part would include less than $100,000 of work “so that he could award the contract to a particular company without having to publish a public notice for competitive bids.”

Mole and Waltjen told him they thought that would violate state statutes regarding bidding procedures, according to the suit.

Mayor Mike Wendel, City Manager Robb Corbett and the city’s attorney for the lawsuit, Stan Legore, all said they cannot comment on the suit.

The city’s response to the lawsuit asserts that Mole and Waltjen were laid off, not fired, as part of “an administrative and budgetary departmental reorganization in mid-January.” It asks for a judgment in its favor, including the reimbursement of costs and attorneys’ fees.

Mole worked for the city between February 2003 and January, and Waltjen was his administrative assistant for about six months.

Gillham was hired as the city’s first assistant city manager in September 2006. He and other city officials have said he was the one to tell Mole on Jan. 18 that he no longer had a job. Gillham resigned in February after public outcry over his involvement in Mole’s dismissal and has since become city manager in Lakeport, Calif.

Mole made about $67,000 a year at the time his job was eliminated. Both he and Waltjen were offered severance packages of three months’ salary, they have said. Gillham had an annual salary of about $87,000 and before he resigned, he negotiated a severance package similar to Mole and Waltjen’s.

Hennagin, Mole and Waltjen’s attorney, said that a status conference in Crook County Circuit Court is scheduled for next week. He added that he is not sure when a trial would begin.

City Attorney Carl Dutli said that he is not aware of another time when former employees have sued Prineville over their termination.

“People can threaten, they can say all sorts of things and there have been occasions when people or former employees have done that, but nothing ever came out of it,” Dutli said. “I don’t recall any lawsuits, (and) I’ve been city attorney for 26-plus years.”

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