Citizens have few weapons in fighting city hall

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 26, 2005

The old saying that you can’t fight city hall is not exactly true, but if you try, you better have deep pockets.

That appears to be what the city often banks on in its not infrequent forays into the courts system.

Private citizens, if sued, countersued and appealed often enough, will eventually run out of money and give up pursuit of whatever it was they were after – whether it be reinstatement of a job, the right to speak their mind at a public meeting or simply to put up a sign at their business that somebody at the city does not like.

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Such could be the case with Darlene Wilkerson. Wilkerson was one of the now infamous Suffolk Seven – employees accused of mishandling the petty cash box in the public utilities department, basically using it as a quasi-private credit union.

All were canned when city officials were shocked to discover the practice, one that had apparently been going on for at least the better part of two decades, yet somehow escaped notice of department managers, none of whom were implicated in Pettycashboxgate.

Wilkerson, who had transferred to the public works department two years earlier, was nonetheless pursued and caught up in the purge. She appealed her termination, in accordance with city policy, to a three-member grievance panel.

The panel, which included a state-appointed impartial judge, after hearing some 600 pages of testimony, recommended unanimously that the city was wrong in firing Wilkerson, that she be reinstated to her job and be given what by the time of the recommendation had become a significant amount of back pay.

Justice served? Not quite.

Thanks to a General Assembly-provided loophole, Suffolk was allowed to appeal the panel’s decision to a higher authority – human resources director Yvonne Manning.

That’s right: the same Yvonne Manning who was the city’s key witness against Wilkerson before the grievance panel. What a lucky break. Can you say &uot;conflict of interest?&uot;

In a big surprise to almost nobody, Manning overturned the panel’s decision. On Monday, a Suffolk Circuit Court judge ruled that the city followed proper procedure. The result is that Wilkerson’s only option now is to appeal the matter to the State Supreme Court, where the burden of proof will be on her to prove the lower court was wrong.

Fat chance. Not to mention the considerable expense Wilkerson, who has no bottomless pit of tax money at her disposal to pursue the matter, would have to incur in doing so. So for all intents and purposes, the case is finished. And that’s unfortunate.

Because it’s a &uot;personnel matter,&uot; much of this case has been conducted behind closed doors, so outside of those directly involved, nobody knows the full story. But the facts that are known are not comforting. The zeal with which the city has pursued the case against Wilkerson – hiring several outside attorneys to litigate it – would seem difficult to justify in light of the alleged offense and the panel’s recommendation. Equally perplexing is the city’s apparent willingness to inflict significant damage on its credibility with its employees by not abiding by the unanimous recommendations of the grievance panel (Think any city employee is going to go into a grievance situation again expecting to be dealt with in good faith?)

We hope it’s been worth it.