Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Another lawsuit threatens Sun Valley

City Clerk files tort claim against city, 5 officials

Express Staff Writer

Sun Valley City Clerk Kelly Ek intends to sue the city and some of its current and past officials, claiming she was subjected to a hostile work environment and intentional infliction of mental distress.

Ek, through Boise attorney William Tharp, has sent a notice of tort claim to the city, naming former City Administrator Sharon Hammer, former Mayor Wayne Willich and current council members Bob Youngman, Michelle Griffith and Franz Suhadolnik, alleging negligence, deliberate indifference, failure to exercise professional judgment, and reckless, willful, and wanton conduct.

The notice, dated April 20, claims that after Ek questioned Hammer's handling of administrative and financial matters, Hammer and Willich retaliated against her by "their offensive behavior as well as disparaging her to fellow employees."

The alleged retaliation began in mid-November 2011 and continues to the present, according to the claim.

"This malicious and unfounded retaliation caused by Ms. Hammer and Mayor Willich resulted in a hostile work environment and was in direct violation of the United States Constitution and other federal and state statutes," the claim states. Among alleged violations are Ek's right to free speech and protection under Idaho's "Whistle Blowers" statute.

The claim states that Ek has suffered "severe mental and emotional anguish" and has had to take administrative leave for her health and emotional well-being. She was placed on medical leave without pay as of March 26.

"A precise calculation of these damages has not yet been undertaken for economic loss, but certainly Ms. Ek has suffered harm and damage by way of economic and non-economic damages, arising out of the stress, anxiety and emotional pain and suffering in an amount not less than $250,000 and punitive damages," the claim states. "[I]t is likely the claimant's damages will exceed $2.5 million."

A potential plaintiff is required by state law to file a notice of tort claim before he or she can file a lawsuit. Ek's claim states that it is intended "to save needless expense and litigation by providing for amicable resolution of differences between parties."

"We are confident that Ms. Ek will prevail in litigation against the City and its employees," it states.

The notice does not state why the three council members named in the claim, two of whom were sworn into office Jan. 3, were included. Councilman Nils Ribi and Mayor Dewayne Briscoe—who was council president before taking office in January—were not named in the tort claim.

Willich said he was aware of the claim but had no comment on it. Neither Hammer nor Tharp responded to requests for comments by press time Tuesday.

Briscoe said the claim is covered by the city's insurance policy with Idaho Counties Risk Management Program, which is providing legal counsel on the issue.

"I'm actively working with the ICRMP attorneys to resolve this and try to negotiate a settlement," Briscoe said Monday. "We are working toward resolution and settlement."

A settlement would be covered by the insurance policy, he said.

Briscoe said he has been talking with Ek to try to address her concerns, and said he hopes she will return to her job with the city.

"She is a very good, thorough and trustworthy employee," he said.

Briscoe said another current employee has stated an intent to file a tort claim, but he said he's been in talks with that employee to try to resolve concerns. He declined to name the employee.

Briscoe said he and Virginia Egger, interim executive assistant to the mayor, have put all city employees on notice that harassment will not be tolerated

"I'll terminate employees that continue to harass whistleblowers," he said.

Claim latest in long list of strife at City Hall

Ek's tort claim comes during an especially tumultuous period in Sun Valley.

The city recently began a forensic audit to examine the administration of the city and allegations that arose in an internal investigative report.

In addition, an external investigation involving the Blaine County Prosecutor's Office and the Idaho Attorney General's Office is ongoing. The nature of the investigation has not been publicly disclosed.

Also, last month, Sun Valley police investigated a break-in and burglary of the Elkhorn Fire Station, wherein payroll documents were stolen and electronic files were deleted. Sun Valley officials said that investigation was turned over to the Attorney General's Office, though a spokesman there would not confirm that.

In November, Hammer filed a lawsuit against Sun Valley and Councilmen Ribi and Youngman and City Attorney Adam King, claiming Ribi repeatedly harassed her and that after she complained to Willich, Ribi launched an effort to remove her from her job.

She dropped the suit in January, and the city terminated her contract soon after.

Hammer's husband, attorney James Donoval, was representing her at that time. Ribi filed a defamation suit against Donoval, who filed a counterclaim against Ribi.

The parties are set to appear in court Friday for a hearing on a motion for summary judgment filed by Donoval in the suit against him.

Rebecca Meany:

Search for city administrator postponed

Sun Valley has selected an executive search firm to help find a new city administrator, but the city will ask it to hold off on launching the search until various investigations and audits are completed. The City Council and mayor interviewed three firms last week, settling on Atlanta-based The Mercer Group. "We may attract far more qualified candidates if they see that we have resolved our internal problems," Mayor Dewayne Briscoe said

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