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Public Works Drama Continues

POSTED October 29, 2013 5:03 p.m.

Just a few short months after settling his hostile workplace lawsuit resulting from defending the city’s only African-American worker in another lawsuit, the City of Oakdale placed Public Works Supervisor Mark Ozbirn on administrative leave claiming an investigation now into his work performance.

“This has more than taken its toll on me and my family,” a shaken Ozbirn said, adding city officials did not give any specifics to what the performance issue was about when relieving him of duty with pay on Sept. 24. “My wife, kids, and friends can see the emotional damage this keeps causing me.”

Ozbirn, 53, has been with the city since 1988 and was promoted to his current post of utilities and streets supervisor in 2003.

Former city worker William Moffitt filed a lawsuit against the city in 2008 alleging racial discrimination, harassment, a hostile work environment, and retaliation.

In March 2011, the city settled with Moffitt at a cost of $185,000 and had $254,000 in legal fees from that one action.

Earlier this year Oakdale also settled a lawsuit filed by Ozbirn. In the suit, Ozbirn claimed that he was snubbed and demeaned by city leaders after he defended Moffitt.

In his suit, Ozbirn claimed he was harassed by the same group of employees that had harassed Moffitt. When he informed city management, the blame was placed on him and was told the employees no longer respected him.

The city later paid Ozbirn $220,000 to resolve his suit as well as paid legal costs over $143,500 defending the suit.

To the public’s surprise the legal and settlement costs came out of the city’s special enterprise funds. City officials justified paying out of the special account stating the involved employees were public works employees and thus the amounts were allowed to be paid from those accounts.

Ozbirn believes the current action by the city against him is retaliatory for the lawsuit and his disagreement with City Manager Bryan Whitemyer on public works operational issues since Whitemyer was hired earlier this year.

“It’s amazing that Mr. Wellman, Dee Tatum, and Stan Feathers thought I was doing very well in public works but now I’m back in the crapper,” said Ozbirn regarding the interim city managers before Whitemyer was hired. “Those three have vast experience in operating a city.”

During the Wellman-Feathers terms Ozbirn was visible at city council meetings making presentations on behalf of the public works department and had responsibilities filling in for vacant positions including the deputy public works director.

Ozbirn said he also received regular praise and a pay raise for his performance and added responsibilities at that time.

When contacted, former Interim City Manager Wellman said he couldn’t speak about performance matters, but that Ozbirn was trusted with overseeing utilities issues such as water and waste water treatment responsibilities and job duties of public works positions that were unoccupied.

“They brought me out of my (emotional) hole from all the blasting I got from other employees for my lawsuit,” said Ozbirn about the three contracted top city administrators. “Now it’s like, ‘here we go all over again.’”

Ozbirn claims he has brought time card fraud issues to Whitemyer’s attention and recommended safety equipment changes to bring the department up to standard that were later rebuffed.

“I’m a good one for asking questions and making statements based on truth,” said Ozbirn. “The city doesn’t like bad news. You can make a good thing out of a bad thing if you correct it.”

Ozbirn claims fallout with Whitemyer also occurred when the city installed a water supply line for the River Community Church and Ozbirn questioned the authorization.

“We weren’t supposed to do work for private contracts or people,” said Ozbirn. “We had been given a council directive.”

Ozbirn’s matter isn’t the only public works employee action pending.

The Leader has learned that in July public works employee James Geske filed a workman’s comp claim that required him to be off work. Four days later Geske received notice from the city that he was being terminated for his inability to perform his job requirements.

Geske declined to speak about specifics but did confirm he filed a workman’s compensation claim in July and later received notice from the city that he was terminated. Geske also said he has hired an attorney and plans to pursue the matter.

Oakdale City Manager Bryan Whitemyer said he could not speak about personnel matters or pending legal matters.

“My intent is to treat everyone fairly and serve the community fairly,” said Whitemyer. “I hope that is what we can focus on. I can’t control what’s happened in the past.”

The public works department has been besieged by recent problems of not only the discrimination lawsuits, but morale issues and a city plan to look into privatization of those services last year.

Ozbirn, Geske, and other city officials and workers have pointed to the public works department with accusations of “coddling” certain employees and “a good ol’ boy network” that takes care of its own.

The city fired its public works director in July 2012 and has replaced that position with a part-time contracted administrator.

The public works city employee actions come to light when a city water and sewer rate hike is on the horizon for a Nov. 4 city council meeting. The city is asking to nearly triple current waste water billing charges for residential customers over the next four years.

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