Friday, May 17, 2013

Ex-administrator sues city leaders

Sharon Hammer files federal case against Sun Valley

Express Staff Writer

     Former Sun Valley City Administrator Sharon Hammer and her husband and sometimes attorney Jim Donoval have filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Boise against the city, the mayor and a councilman. The suit claims that the city, Mayor Dewayne Briscoe and Councilman Nils Ribi conspired to fire Hammer and deprived her of U.S. Constitution-protected “rights, privileges and immunities,” resulting in her wrongful termination.

     “The adverse employment actions taken against Ms. Hammer would chill the speech of a person with ordinary firmness,” the complaint states.

     The City Council terminated Hammer’s contract with the city in January 2012 with no stated cause. Donoval said in an interview that he and Hammer—also an attorney, but unlicensed in Idaho—filed the suit in federal court because it includes multiple federal civil rights implications related to her employment with the city.

     The lawsuit is the ninth suit or countersuit—four pending (plus one appeal and one countersuit) and three closed—filed by Hammer or Donoval related to city personnel issues that came to a head in late 2011.

     “I suggest that thus far it is Sun Valley’s refusal to admit that it has done anything wrong that is continuing to require taxpayer-funded litigation,” Donoval said in the interview.

     The suit was filed on May 3 on Hammer’s and Donoval’s behalf by Boise-attorney Eric Swartz. Donoval is not Hammer’s attorney in this case, though he is representing her in some of the other pending litigation.

     “Because Sharon and I are both lawyers, we understand better than most people when others have committed acts that subject them to civil responsibility,” Donoval said in the interview. “And Sharon has never been given an opportunity to adequately defend the allegations made against her.”

     Those allegations include claims by city personnel that Hammer misused city funds and assets, including the personal use of a city-owned vehicle fueled by city-paid gas and the improper reporting of vacation days and compensable time off. Investigations indicated that then-Mayor Wayne Willich had approved Hammer’s use of the vehicle and a “flex” schedule for Hammer that allowed her to work outside of regular business hours.

     Blaine County Prosecuting Attorney Jim Thomas investigated the allegations with the aid of the Idaho Attorney General’s Office, but did not file any criminal charges. However, Thomas did state in November in a letter to the city that management was “lax” during Willich’s administration.

     The new complaint lists 14 counts against the defendants, including:

  • “Gender discrimination and harassment” (against the city) and assault of Hammer (against Ribi).
  • “Retaliation against” Hammer and Donoval in violation of U.S. Constitution rights to freedom of speech and access to the courts (against the city, Briscoe and Ribi).
  •  “Civil conspiracy” in violation of the Fifth and 14th amendments to the Constitution (against the city, Briscoe and Ribi).

      The Fifth Amendment states that “No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, …” According to the complaint, the defendants developed and carried out the “unlawful objective” of gathering confidential city documents regarding or relating to Ms. Hammer which, when “intentionally misconstrued,” would provide the appearance of alleged misconduct in order to have Ms. Hammer fired and to “ruin her personal and professional reputation.”

     Furthermore, the complaint notes that Donoval ran in the summer of 2010 for Idaho Senate as a Republican. The complaint states that Ribi became “hostile” toward Donoval after Donoval criticized Ribi for publicly endorsing Donoval’s opponent in the election. According to the complaint, Ribi then transferred that hostility toward Hammer.

     “The actions of Defendant Ribi created a workplace environment within the city that was permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult severe and pervasive enough to alter the terms and conditions of Ms. Hammer’s employment and to create a hostile and abusive working environment,” the complaint states.

     Ribi has denied several times any such conduct, saying in March that the charges are baseless and will be proven as such in a court of law.

     The complaint states that Hammer brought the alleged harassment to Willich’s attention, who discussed it with Ribi and told him any such behavior should not continue. According to the complaint, Ribi and Briscoe then conspired with other city personnel to have Hammer fired.

     Kirtlan Naylor, an attorney retained to represent the city in the suit by the city’s insurance carrier, Boise-based Idaho Cities Risk Management Program, said: “The city just recently received a copy of the 88-page complaint and can only say that the defendants deny the claims and will strenuously defend the case.”

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