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Judge dismisses ex-trail coordinator’s wrongful termination suit against Lewis County

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LOWVILLE — A judge has ruled that Lewis County’s former recreational trail coordinator will not get his job back.

State Supreme Court Judge James P. McClusky, in a three-page decision filed in the Lewis County clerk’s office, dismissed a wrongful termination suit lodged in June by former trail coordinator Robert C. Diehl.

“The legislature is tasked with protecting the taxpayers and public money collected to run the County,” Judge McClusky wrote. “It is not the Court’s role to substitute its own judgment in place of elected officials under these circumstances.”

The suit, filed by Lowville attorney Michael F. Young shortly after county legislators hired Jacqueline L. Mahoney as their new trail coordinator, claimed the Feb. 1 termination of Mr. Diehl was arbitrary and capricious and sought reinstatement to his nearly $49,000-per-year post, back pay and legal fees.

The former trail coordinator was suspended without pay last November after being accused of submitting a purchase order and voucher for payment on Oct. 25, 2012, for stone products from V.S. Virkler & Son, Lowville, that included $3,262.97 worth of gravel delivered to his residence for his personal use. Because he was a civil service employee, his pay was reinstated after 30 days, but he remained off the job.

Following a Dec. 26 administrative hearing presided over by retired state Supreme Court Justice John S. Parker, the judge found Mr. Diehl not guilty of violating personnel policies, committing fraud or submitting a false claim but found him guilty of incompetence and recommended the county reprimand him and suspend him without pay for 60 days.

Legislators held closed-session discussions on the matter Jan. 28 and again Feb. 1 before voting 9-0 to fire him instead.

In his suit, Mr. Diehl contended his cause was harmed by the leaking of information from the Jan. 28 session and subsequent distribution of an email message indicating the board was split 5-5 on whether to suspend him temporarily or fire him, a list of lawmakers on both sides and a plea to lobby his supporters to change their minds.

The suit contended that without a lack of intent to harm the county or a prior disciplinary record, Mr. Diehl should not have been fired, based on guidelines of the county’s personnel handbook.

However, Judge McClusky wrote that a court-ordered reversal of the Legislature’s decision should happen “only if the measurement of the punishment or discipline imposed is so disproportionate to the offense, in light of all the circumstances, as to be shocking to one’s sense of fairness.”

The judge ruled that in this case, termination for incompetence — which could lead to improper or reckless expenditure of public money — did not meet that standard.

Attorney Charles C. Spagnoli from Miller Law Firm in East Syracuse handled the county’s defense in the case.

In his criminal case, Mr. Diehl last month was found guilty by acting County Judge Donald E. Todd of third-degree attempted grand larceny, first-degree offering a false instrument for filing and official misconduct at the conclusion of a bench trial. Sentencing is set for Dec. 3.

Lewis County last year lost a wrongful-termination suit brought by former Democratic Election Commissioner Elaine McLear, with the judge noting election commissioners can be removed from office only by the governor.

However, the county appealed the decision, keeping Mrs. McLear from returning to work until after her term expired Dec. 31. Results of that appeal will determine whether the county will be required to pay Mrs. McLear, who had an annual salary of about $35,000, for one year under suspension.

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