The Block Island Times
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Blane cites reasons for suspending clerk Ziegler

By Stephanie Turaj | Oct 04, 2013
Photo by: Stephanie Turaj Sewer Clerk Janet Ziegler has been suspended since Sept. 1.

Sewer Superintendent Chris Blane has cited two reasons why he chose to suspend Janet Ziegler, the sewer and water district clerk, from her administrative role at the sewer plant.

At a Sewer Commission meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 2, Blane alleged that Ziegler has been “abusing sick time,” by working other jobs while on sick leave from the sewer plant. Blane also alleged that Ziegler worked on other paid jobs while she was working at the sewer plant, and was using sewer plant resources, such as the computer, to conduct her private business.

“At various occasions while the clerk was out on sick leave, I observed her dropping off coolers full of water samples to be shipped at the water plant,” said Blane. “The doctor’s note said no work could be done.” Ziegler was on sick leave from the beginning of June until Aug. 29, said Blane.

Blane also said that Ziegler’s own private business, which involves water sampling, had been conducted while she was working paid hours at the sewer plant. Blane said that Ziegler and her attorney did not sign a consent form that would allow Blane to investigate “exactly what work” was being done during the time Blane alleged Ziegler conducted private business.

Previous to Blane’s explanation of his reasoning, one member of the sewer commission, alternate Allan MacKay, questioned Blane’s authority to suspend Ziegler.

“There are simply situations where it’s appropriate [to suspend] and certain circumstances where it’s not. In situations where there’s urgency or public safety, then I think they [superintendents] should have the authority,” said MacKay. “I think the way things were handled here was inappropriate... I don’t understand the immediacy of it. There’s no reason why we couldn’t have talked about it.” *

MacKay also added: “I don’t feel like I’ve been kept in the loop. I think if we’re in the situation where we’re being threatened with lawsuits, then we should have been involved in the process.”

Other commissioners disagreed with MacKay, arguing that Blane should have the ability to manage his employees. “The role of superintendent implies that he has a right to suspend,” said commissioner Tom Doyle. “Just in terms of labor law, the superintendents are in charge.”

The Sewer Commission voted on this point. Doyle made the motion: “We find it logical to allow the superintendent to suspend an employee.” The vote was 5-0**; MacKay could not vote because he serves as an alternate and all commissioners were present.

Blane has suspended Ziegler from her role at the sewer plant since Sept. 1, according to a letter written by the Sewer Commission Chair Peter McNerney. Ziegler is still performing administrative duties at the water plant, under the supervision of Water Superintendent John Breunig.

The fate of her continued employment at the sewer and water districts is to be decided by a sewer and water commission vote at a future meeting.

Before the Oct. 2 meeting began, Ziegler stood up and read a prepared statement to the commission:

“I am here today simply to observe and record this meeting for my Attorney who cannot be here today. But I want to make a brief statement,” she said. “I have been the Sewer Commission Secretary and a Sewer administrative employee for more than 20 years. I enjoy my work and look forward to clearing my good name. I only ask you to keep an open mind as these hearings unfold.”

Ziegler did not participate in the meeting otherwise, and she did not respond when commissioners asked if she would prefer the meeting be held in open or closed session. Part of this meeting was open; the latter part of the meeting in closed session.

The commission met in closed session to discuss matters of potential litigation regarding the Ziegler issue. No motions were made in this closed session.

After about half an hour, the commission briefly returned to open session, and discussed setting a hearing about Ziegler’s job position. At this hearing, testimony will be presented by interested parties and attorneys.

Two meeting have been scheduled for Wednesday, Oct. 9 at 1:30 p.m. at the Fire Barn; and Friday, Oct. 11, 1:30 p.m. at Town Hall.

The Sewer Commission also consists of the same members as the Water Commission. However, the Water Commission could not take any votes or hold any discussion at the Oct. 2 meeting, because a mistake in the public posting of the agenda resulted in the meeting not being properly advertised, said Sewer Commission Chair Peter McNerney.

*In a previous version of this article that appeared in print, Allan MacKay was misquoted. Correctly stated, he said, "In situations where there’s urgency or public safety, then I think they [superintendents] should have the authority."

It was incorrectly reported as, "In situations where there’s no urgency or public safety, then I think they [superintendents] should have the authority."

** In a previous version of this article that appeared in print and online, the vote to affirm the sewer superintendent's authority to suspend employees was incorrectly reported as 6-0. Correctly stated, it was a 5-0 vote.

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