A recent press release critical of Madison County Treasurer Kurt Prenzler's handling of a former employee's discrimination claims, was called "ill-timed, misleading and political" by five county board members who countered with their own ammunition on Friday.
They expressed "shock" at a March 23 release issued on county letterhead from Board members Bill Meyer, Republican from Hamel, Kelly Tracy, Democrat from Marine and Jack Minner, Democrat from Edwardsville. The release took Prenzler to task for not early on accepting a $60,000 offer to settle a discrimination claim brought by former comptroller Linda Dunnagan.
The release critical of Prenzler stated that a verdict awarding Dunnagan $450,000 in damages in federal court, and which requires Madison County pay legal costs and back pay, could cost taxpayers up to $1 million.
But the Board members siding with Prenzler - Tom McRae, Republican from Bethalto, Mick Madison, Republican from Madison, Lisa Ciampoli, Republican from Collinsville, Mike Walters, Republican from Godfrey and Helen Hawkins, Democrat from Granite City, counter that Dunnagan's discrimination case has not yet been fully adjudicated and that their counterparts' press release works against the county’s financial interests.
“I was absolutely shocked that the County would issue a press release on a pending case that potentially undermines the standing of the County” said McRae.
“It was clearly a political press release and doesn’t have a place on county letterhead. That bothers me, especially when we have a case that’s still pending.”
The response also charged that the Board’s rare executive session, which preceded the press release, was purely partisan and done mainly because Prenzler, a Republican, is challenging incumbent Board Chairman Alan Dunstan, a Democrat, in November.
Dunnagan filed suit in federal court in 2014 after Prenzler eliminated her position as he downsized operations in the Treasurer’s office, according to McRae. At the time her position was eliminated, she was recovering from a serious illness.
Even though the verdict went in Dunnagan's favor in federal court in Benton, McRae said the case is not completely over. He said the judge could reduce the award to $50,000 if Dunnagan is found to be a Treasurer’s office employee – or to $350,000 if she is found to be a regular county employee.
“Regarding this case, we should let the court system play out and let our lawyers negotiate in the best interests of the county,” McRae said, adding that there is also a possibility that the award could be appealed since the case was determined largely over the definition of “disability.”
“My hope is that we can minimize the cost to the taxpayers and get a reduction or get it thrown out,” he said.
While the press release critical of Prenzler quotes Board member Brenda Roosevelt, Democrat from Glen Carbon, as saying the "entire situation could have been avoided if Mr, Prenzler had respected the rights of this woman," the Board members who stand with Prenzler point out in response that their counterparts fail to mention other discrimination verdicts and settlements against the County,
Former Board member Chris Slusser, the current county GOP chairman, said that a federal jury found the County liable in a sex discrimination case brought against Madison County Regional Superintendent of Schools Bob Daiber. Plaintiff Mary B. Parker claimed she was discriminated against because a male coworker doing the same job was paid significantly more money,
"The jury awarded her $500,000 because of the workplace discrimination," Slusser said. "Where were the press releases and private closed sessions of the county board then? “
In 2008, the county settled a hostile work environment lawsuit brought by a secretary who worked for the County on claims that former Administrator Jim Monday exposed her to pornography.
The county currently faces two employment discrimination claims against State's Attorney Tom Gibbons; one by former employee Andrew Kane, who won a previous suit to keep his job but sues now claiming he is being treated in a "demeaning, insulting and disparaging manner."
Another is on behalf of Julia Matoesian, wife of sitting Circuit Judge Andreas Matoesian.
She alleges age and sex discrimination when Gibbons terminated her in 2012, at age 75.
“Plaintiff is female; the Madison County State’s Attorney did not initially tell plaintiff her employment was being terminated,” the complaint states. “Instead of informing plaintiff that her employment was being terminated, the Madison County State’s Attorney first discussed the termination of plaintiff’s employment with plaintiff’s husband.”
The county also faces even greater potential liability in a series of consolidated class action lawsuits from property owners who believe they were defrauded by the rigged property tax scheme conducted by former Treasurer, Fred Bathon.
Walters stated, “Where was the outrage by those wagging their fingers at Mr. Prenzler on these cases?"
Political lines not precisely partisan
Issues raised in the two press releases from Board members don't exactly line up as a Republican vs. Democrat match.
Republican Meyer, who lost a primary battle to Phil Chapman last month, sided with Democrats in the first round of the battle of press releases. He said that members of both parties recognize "how terrible" issues involving costs of the Dunnagan lawsuit have become.
“There is no excuse for discriminating against any employee, much less a disabled employee,” Meyer said,
And in the response, Democrat Hawkins siding with Republicans, said some in her party who were "threatened by Prenzler" are engaging in a “political witch hunt."