DeKALB – City Attorney Dean Frieders is denying claims that he harassed former interim City Manager Molly Talkington when she did not disclose whether or not she was dating an alderman. Talkington has claimed the city removed her from her interim role, a decision made final after midnight Tuesday, in retaliation.
"I can and do specifically deny her claim that I engaged in any form of harassment or any form of inappropriate conduct," Frieders said after an almost two-hour closed executive session of the City Council on Tuesday night.
The council reconvened about 12:15 a.m. Wednesday and voted unanimously to remove Talkington from the role, and to make Assistant City Manager Raymond Munch interim city manager until a permanent replacement is hired.
Tuesday night, the Daily Chronicle published a story which detailed Talkington's claim she was placed on leave because of her refusal to answer questions from the mayor and city attorney about whether she was dating 1st Ward Alderman David Jacobson.
"On my own part as an attorney, I know that this is going to go through due process, and I look forward to the outcome of that. It's my hope the public withhold judgment until they understand all of the facts," Frieders said.
A statement issued by the city early Wednesday said the city is investigating claims made by Talkington, who was reinstated as the city's finance director, but remains on administrative leave. Jacobson left the council meeting just before the executive session and did not return to participate in the vote.
Mayor Jerry Smith said Talkington will remain on paid administrative leave until the investigation suggests otherwise.
"This will be handled by a labor council, who I have a great deal of confidence in," Frieders said, echoing the city's news release that a full investigation will be launched into Talkington's claim of gender discrimination.
"Ms. Talkington was placed on leave on Nov. 5 based on concerns regarding the transparency of some financial transactions," Frieders said. "It was not until several days thereafter that she first made a claim of harassment."
Smith declined comment, saying he wanted to read the Chronicle's full report first. Smith later said Wednesday morning that he denies any wrongdoing.
The city has attempted to speak with Talkington regarding her claims, but Talkington has refused to answer their questions, according to the release.
Talkington’s lawyer, Keith Hunt, on Tuesday filed a workplace discrimination complaint against the city with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In the complaint, Talkington said she was subjected to sexual harassment and a hostile work environment, and says her removal was an act of retaliation.
The city's statement also says matters relating to sexual harassment and placing Talkington on paid administrative leave are "two serious matters" but that they are "wholly separate."
On Tuesday, Hunt disputed that what the city is alleging as misappropriation of funds had been done in secret. Hunt also said Frieders had been part of the discussion about changes in the city's health insurance payments. He said the city had paid more than it owed into the co-op in order to provide a cushion for premium increases brought on by high claim volumes. By the end of last year, those overpayments had created a surplus of about $2 million, double the recommended cushion of $1 million, and so the decision was made to use $250,000 of that surplus through reduced payments in order to free up money for other budget needs.
The city also voted unanimously to amend the fiscal year 2018 budget and authorize an immediate supplemental payment of $250,000 to the intergovernmental personnel benefit cooperative.
Former Mayor Bessie Chronopoulos made the only public comment on the matter, which yielded no discussion from council. Chronopoulos expressed strong opposition to the ordinance passage.
"This is way too serious; the city cannot investigate itself," Chronopoulos said. "Clear the air, we're really depending on you to really and truly be transparent."
She called into question why the funding allocation misappropriation was not discovered in when the FY2018 budget was passed in December 2017.
Second Ward Alderman Bill Finucane expressed concern about lack of communication with council on these matters, and said council "doesn't really have any desire to throw anyone under the bus."
"Had the decision to save $250,000 by drawing down the IPC reserves been brought to council in a more transparent manner, we could have had an open discussion as a council and could have identified potential problems and could have made an informed choice with city employees and public understanding of what has been done," Finucane said. "We weren't give that opportunity. That lack of communication is very troubling to me, and what I gather the rest of my colleagues also."