It appears that no expense will be spared in Niagara County’s effort to punish outspoken county employee William Rutland under the pretense of committing the high crime and misdemeanor of assisting an elected county Legislator with what seems to be a legitimate request.
The Reporter has learned that County Manager Jeff Glatz has hired outside legal counsel - the same law firm used to investigate Rick Pope, former Director of the Niagara County Refuse Disposal District - to represent the county in the Rutland matter.
Pope, who was on paid administrative leave for two months before resigning last month, was also engaged in an ongoing dispute with Glatz before his decision to resign after more than nineteen years at his position.
When we last reported on this matter in November 2012, Rutland notified the Reporter that he received a disciplinary letter from Human Resources accusing him of abandoning his assigned work area when he accompanied Legislator Jason A. Zona on a tour of a storage facility the county planned to sell.
The facility, on Davison Road, was the subject of debate within the legislature over its closure and imminent sale, along with about 16 acres of additional county-owned land, for around $100,000, to a Republican campaign contributor. The county had spent $500,000 to build the storage facility.
The Republican majority said the building was in deteriorated condition and planned to move the county records to a rented warehouse in Newfane, owned by David Ulrich, one of the largest Republican campaign contributors in Niagara County.
According to Rutland, a mechanic for Niagara County, he did nothing wrong in assisting Zona, a Democrat, to locate the county-owned storage facility in order for Zona to determine the property's true condition, since it was a minute’s walk from where he is assigned to work. Rutland explained that he had the option of taking one of his 15 minute breaks at the time he was asked to assist Zona, and spent no more than 10 of those minutes with Zona and then went back to work.
Rutland, however, was warned in writing by HR that “any further issues of this type will result in discipline up to and including termination of your employment.” As a result of receiving and having now a written warning in his personnel file, Rutland’s union responded by filing an improper practices claim against the county for mishandling the disciplinary process.
Rutland is the president of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 182, and has been an advocate for his members during a dispute with Glatz over a freeze in scheduled step increases negotiated and approved in their most recent contract. Rutland, in his position as president, hasn't been shy in calling out Glatz for spending money on office remodeling and raises for certain individuals, during a time in which his members have sacrificed and are being asked to do more with less.
Sources familiar with the improper practice procedure said that Melinda Disare, a partner with the Buffalo law firm Jaeckle Fleischmann & Mugel, LLP, has been retained to represent the county. There was a preliminary hearing regarding this matter last week before a law judge, which lasted for five-and-a-half (billable!) hours.
Zona said he was “outraged” to learn that the county hired private attorneys to handle this case, when there are many county attorneys working on the payroll already.
Last week’s preliminary hearing indicates that this investigation will cost the taxpayer’s thousands of dollars to have a partner-level attorney attend hearings, and to prosecute the case on the county’s behalf.
Jaeckle Fleischmann & Mugel have contributed to the Niagara County Republican Committee, according to New York State Board of Elections campaign disclosures. In 2011, the firm donated $1,700.00 to the committee.
Zona pointed out a Democrat proposal to cut a legal expense fund, which failed during last year’s budget negotiations, and would have limited the Republican majority’s ability to hire outside counsel such as Disare whenever it is deemed necessary.
The parties made themselves unavailable for comment due to the ongoing nature of this matter.