Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Ketchum settles suit by building official

City admits mistake but declares victory


By GREG MOORE
Express Staff Writer

Following an adverse court ruling on key issues, former Ketchum Building Official Dennis Keierleber has settled a wrongful discharge suit against the city for a small fraction of the amount he was seeking.

The suit, filed May 19, sought more than $67,000 in unpaid wages. It was dismissed Dec. 21 following a settlement for about $3,000.

Keierleber contended that the city violated Idaho law when the mayor and City Council decided to replace his services with those of the Idaho Division of Building Safety during an executive session on Oct. 18, 2010. The state's Open Meeting Law allows governing bodies to go into executive session to discuss personnel and legal issues, but not to take final action.

"The decision to enter into the contract for services in executive session is what led to Dennis' removal," said his attorney, Ben Worst. "The whole situation could have been avoided by just following the law and taking a vote."

Keierleber was informed of the decision to eliminate his position in a letter from Mayor Randy Hall dated Nov. 1, 2010. It stated that the elimination was effective immediately, but that he would receive severance pay through Dec. 3, 2010.

In court documents, city officials stated that the position was eliminated to save money. The documents indicated that an official decision to enter into the contract with the state was made by a City Council vote in open session on Dec. 6, 2010.

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Keierleber was initially demanding unpaid wages from the date of his last severance paycheck until the filing of the suit, on the grounds that the city had never legally terminated him. He contended that his employment contract did not specify any minimum hours of work, and, therefore, he was entitled to compensation even though he had done no work for the city since November.

However, 5th District Judge Robert Elgee rejected that argument when he denied Keierleber's motion for summary judgment on Nov. 9, 2011. Elgee ruled that Keierleber might be entitled to unpaid wages only for the period of Dec. 3-6, 2010—from the date of his last severance paycheck until the council vote. Elgee also denied Keierleber's request for attorney's fees.

In an interview, Mayor Randy Hall acknowledged that the city had terminated Keierleber prematurely. Under Idaho's Wage Claims Act, a plaintiff who wins a court action to recover unpaid wages is entitled to three times the value of the wages. Hall said Keierleber was owed $1,000 for three days worth of wages and could probably have recovered $3,000 if he had persisted with his court case.

"We decided we owed him three days—it was the fair thing to do," Hall said.

However, he said that "this was clearly a win for the city. What was really important was that the judge found that we did [on Dec. 6, 2010] follow proper procedures in terminating this employee."

Hall said the city has saved about $100,000 in Building Department costs since it entered into its contract with the state Division of Building Safety in December 2010. He said the state is able to process building plan checks vastly faster than the city could due to its sophisticated computer software. He said the expedited procedure also saves a great deal of money for developers of large projects such as hotels.

Greg Moore: gmoore@mtexpress.com




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