Fired Crocker city administrator's lawyer planning second lawsuit
By: Darrell Todd Maurina
Posted: Wednesday, February 18, 2009 11:14 pm
Tyce Smith explains to Crocker City Council members why he believes they violated Missouri law and their own ordinances in firing his client, former city administrator Joyce Peterson.
CROCKER, Mo. (Feb. 18, 2009) — The attorney for fired Crocker City Administrator Joyce Peterson has announced plans to file a second lawsuit against the city, this time accusing the aldermen of age discrimination.
At a special city council meeting Wednesday night, Tyce Smith said his client hasn’t been treated correctly by the city and urged the aldermen to reconsider their decision to terminate her less than a year before she would have been eligible for retirement.
Smith gave special attention to allegations that Peterson had sworn at Mayor Jim Morgan.
“Unfortunately you have a controversy; in this situation it’s unfortunate that it’s between the mayor and the former city administrator. The minutes, I believe, are incorrect that you had at your last meeting,” Smith said. “I don’t believe my client ever used a cuss word directed at Mayor Morgan. That is a matter of fact someday we’ll have to decide in court.”
Peterson was terminated Feb. 4 at a city council meeting about which media were notified only hours before the session began and for which the agenda didn’t specify the possibility of a vote in closed session. She was notified of the termination two days later when a Crocker policeman and two sheriff’s deputies arrived at her home Friday night and delivered a packet with the termination documents.
Peterson’s attorney filed a lawsuit on the next business day, Feb. 9, accusing the city council of violating the Missouri Sunshine Law by holding an illegally closed meeting and of violating the council’s own ordinances by not following the proper procedure to terminate the city administrator. When Crocker City Council members decided a half-decade ago to upgrade the city clerk position to a city administrator, the aldermen adopted the same ordinance that St. Robert aldermen used when they hired City Administrator Norman Herren. Smith wrote that ordinance when he was St. Robert’s city attorney, and argued in his lawsuit that Crocker clearly didn’t do what the ordinance requires.
In the lawsuit, Smith claimed that the Crocker council members violated the Sunshine Law on four grounds: that “there was no motion and vote as to the reason for going into closed session,” that the mayor “announced a purpose of going into a closed meeting without any vote or motion for the action,” that “there was no motion as to go into a closed meeting, a vote or both” despite the term “closed meeting” being utilized, and that the public notice of the meeting “did not give a notice of a potential vote in closed meeting.”
The lawsuit asks the court to declare that the Crocker City Council’s action “should be held void as the public interest in the enforcement of the policy outweighs the public interest in sustaining the validity of the action” and that she be awarded court costs and attorney fees because, according to the lawsuit, the Sunshine Law violation “was made knowingly and purposefully.”
The lawsuit also seeks $5,000 in civil penalties against each council member.
Smith told Crocker City Council members Wednesday night that even though Peterson is an at-will employee, termination needs to follow the proper procedure and she can’t be blamed for her husband’s cursing of the mayor.
“Next time you’d better read your ordinances because the mayor and (Alderman Jim) Patton suspended her from her duties. You can’t do that,” Smith said. “The ordinance clearly provides that you need to have a vote of this body; you did not do that. Now, unfortunately, you are in litigation. In this particular case, you’ve got a 23-year employee, you didn’t give her much of a chance to do what you have to do. It’s a matter of her husband, but she’s an at-will, for-cause employee with a specific ordinance which says that you have to follow certain rules, and you’re trying to follow those tonight.”
Smith acknowledged that the city council’s special meeting on Wednesday with a public hearing was an attempt to fix the problem by following the rules, but said fixing the problem would be easier if the council members decided to reinstate Peterson as city administrator.
“I wish you would reconsider; I really would not like to get into litigation with this group, but we’re going to have to do it if that’s the way you want to go,” Smith said. “I just think that this has been wrong and I think I can prove it, but we’ll have to wait until someone else says that.”
Nearly two dozen people packed the city council chambers, but despite repeated invitations by Morgan and Crocker City Attorney Ronda Cortesini, nobody other than Smith spoke either in favor of or in opposition to Peterson’s termination.
With no discussion, the aldermen again voted unanimously to terminate Peterson.
Speaking after the meeting, Smith said the new lawsuit alleging age discrimination hasn’t been filed yet because he must first go through a state procedure of review by equal employment opportunity and human rights officials. That could take 90 to 120 days, he said.
Smith said he’d like to settle the matter out of court.
“I was hoping it would resolve itself, maybe. You always have that hope; sometimes it’s a dismal hope, but you always have it,” Smith said.
Cortesini, who has been asked by Morgan to serve as the city council’s spokeswoman, said she was “shocked” that none of the two dozen audience members other than Smith spoke up at Wednesday’s council meeting, and surprised more people weren’t there.
“I think they were just curious and they were just here to observe what would happen,” Cortesini said.
Cortesini, who had a family emergency and wasn’t able to be present at the Feb. 4 city council meeting when Peterson was terminated, declined to comment on whether the council might have acted differently if she’d been personally present to give advice. However, she said she’s given extensive advice since then.
“Any actions that the city took, the aldermen and the mayor certainly intended to follow the laws and didn’t do anything intentionally to violate the Sunshine Law or any other laws,” Cortesini said. “I’m trying to advise them more closely on the Sunshine Law.”
Cortesini met with Smith and Peterson privately following Wednesday’s city council meeting and said she shares Smith’s hopes that a settlement can be worked out.
“I always discuss settlement possibilities with my clients, whether it’s a municipality or an individual in a divorce case,” Cortesini said.