MAYVILLE - William Coughlin accused the county of squelching Janice Slaton's termination report during his first meeting as a legislator.
Coughlin replaces John Gullo as the body's District 25 representative, which covers a portion of the town of Pomfret. Coughlin is a Democrat from Fredonia and formerly served as the county's public defender.
Slaton began work as an assistant public defender for the county in 2002. She was placed on paid administrative leave shortly after R. Thomas Rankin took over the public defender's office at the start of last year. Slaton continued to be paid by the county, but never returned to work. She passed away in December after a three-year battle with breast cancer.
OBSERVER Photo by Nicholas L. Dean
Chautauqua County Legislator William Coughlin was opposed to the reappointment of R. Thomas Rankin as public defender. Coughlin served as public defender prior to Rankin being appointed to the position.
Prior to her death, Slaton initiated a lawsuit against the county - alleging that she was wrongfully terminated and discriminated against. In responding to the lawsuit last year, county officials pointed to the fact that Slaton had never actually been terminated and that she continued to be paid throughout 2011.
A termination hearing was held by the county in July and August, with Buffalo attorney Ann Evanko serving as the hearing officer. Evanko had been in the process of issuing a recommendation when Slaton passed away.
Post-hearing briefs were due to Evanko by Nov. 11. Her report was then expected to be issued anywhere from 30 to 60 days after that date.
The status of her report is what Coughlin questioned Tuesday.
The issue came up during the legislature's annual reorganizational meeting. On the agenda was a resolution to reappoint Rankin to a one-year term as the county's public defender.
"I cannot believe that we are sitting here even thinking or having a talk about making Mr. Rankin the public defender," Coughlin said. "It's not even been a month since Ms. Slaton died. One of the reasons given for her firing was that she did not give 48-hours notice to go to her breast cancer checkup, of which she eventually died from. There was no office policy that I'm aware of at the time that even required a 48-hour notice.
"The county at this time has also squelched the report from the attorney who was assigned to look into this," Coughlin continued. "Evidently, it wasn't too favorable on Mr. Rankin."
Reached Friday for comment, Rankin said he takes strong objection to Coughlin's statements.
Rankin pointed to his testimony given during Slaton's termination hearing, which he said makes it clear that the notification policy for medical appointments had nothing to do with the Section 75 proceeding.
"The Section 75 proceeding proceeded on completely different grounds and Mr. Coughlin is well aware of that," Rankin said.
Additionally, Rankin made the point that no one knows what Evanko's report was going to say.
"The hearing officer never communicated directly with me," Rankin said. "She always communicated through the county attorney's office. We have no idea what she was considering. And to say that the report must have contained information that was negative against me or negative against Jan is just mere speculation. We have no idea what the hearing officer was going to say."
According to County Attorney Steve Abdella, disciplinary hearings are not continued after an employee's death.
"The hearing officer had not completed her report of recommendations and so our office advised the hearing officer that Ms. Slaton had passed away," Abdella said. "And so we instructed the hearing officer to close her file on this matter."
No disciplinary action was ever completed, Abdella continued - reiterating that Slaton was never terminated by the county and remained paid by the county throughout 2011.
"She remained a county employee at the time of her death and so her estate or other beneficiaries are entitled to all applicable death benefits that she had earned," Abdella said.
County lawmakers will be asked to reconsider the vote to reappoint R. Thomas Rankin as public defender later this month.
On Friday, Majority Leader Larry Barmore, R-Gerry, said the proposal will return to committee before going back to the full legislature for a second vote.
The resolution has been re-filed with the legislature for the body's regular January business meeting and has not been changed from the proposal which was defeated Tuesday.
At the legislature's reorganizational meeting, Coughlin proposed opening the position up to a search, with an appointment to be made later in the year.
Barmore spoke after Coughlin, urging his fellow lawmakers to return Rankin to the position for another year.
"He's done a commendable job," Barmore said of Rankin.
Barmore then addressed Coughlin's comments about Janice Slaton's termination hearing.
"Mr. Coughlin, my esteemed colleague, has absolutely no basis for the charges he just made and I wish he hadn't done such a thing," Barmore said. "There's been no report squelched. And we can't discuss the private matters that happened. We all know what they are. But we cannot discuss them here in a public meeting. Mr. Rankin has done a commendable job and I believe that he should be returned this year at the same salary he's making with no increase at 90-percent time."
Coughlin responded by saying that he knew from Slaton's attorney that, "yes, the county did ask for the report not to go forward."
The vote to reappoint Rankin as the county's public defender failed to pass Tuesday, receiving only 12 "yes" votes and 13 "no" votes.
Rankin's reappointment was supported by the 12 members of the legislature's Republican caucus. The 13 "no" votes came from the body's Democrats, one Green Party member and Bob Duff, R-Sheridan.
Coughlin was reappointed to the position of public defender for the final time in 2010, when the majority of the legislature at that time was still in question. Democrats had a holdover vote in District 7 as the race between Leon Beightol and Bob Stewart had not yet been decided. Stewart, an Ellington Republican, ultimately won the district as decided by the courts, but not until after Coughlin had received a one-year appointment by the legislature.
Rankin was then appointed public defender at the start of 2011 for a one-year term.
According to Abdella, Rankin has agreed to remain the public defender in the interim, until an appointment is made by the legislature.
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