City council will appeal $2.7M judgment that city shortchanged police in longevity pay

September 27, 2016

By a 9-1 count with one abstention, the Billings City Council voted Monday to appeal a $2.7 million district court judgment that the city shortchanged its police officers in longevity pay.

Councilman Mike Yakawich voted against the appeal, while Brent Cromley abstained because the law firm for which he works, Moulton Bellingham PC, is involved in the appeal.

Joining Mayor Tom Hanel to vote for the appeal, which will cost taxpayers up to $60,000 for outside counsel representation, were Shaun Brown, Dick Clark, Al Swanson, Ryan Sullivan, Rich McFadden, Chris Friedel, Larry Brewster and Angela Cimmino.

“I think the appeal is in the best interest of the citizens of Billings and is the right thing to do,” Brewster said.

“I am less confident we will win,” Yakawich said. “The cost to proceed concerns me, and the impact on the community as we drag it on.”

McFadden said he doesn’t believe that “taxpayer money should be considered low-hanging fruit for frivolous and unjust lawsuits.”

“It upsets me greatly that a public employee would file this lawsuit against an employer,” Hanel said. “We owe it to citizens to spend tax dollars wisely.”

Andy Forsythe, the city’s lead outside counsel on the case, gave the city council several reasons for appealing, including the fact that Park County District Court Judge Brenda R. Gilbert would not allow testimony from police union representatives. He said the Montana Supreme Court, which will hear the appeal, should review what’s meant by “completed years of service” as it pertains to longevity pay.

In Montana, he said, employees are required to recover wages and penalties within two years after the fact — three years for a repeat offender. In this case, he said, the court awarded compensation nearly eight years after the case was filed, in early 2009.

City administrator

The city council voted 10-1, with Friedel casting the lone “no” vote, to extend the contract of City Administrator Tina Volek for one year, from Oct. 1 through Sept. 30, 2017. Under the agreement, the city council must meet with Volek by Dec. 31 to discuss a raise in her $130,560 salary.

“I want you to step up your game, and I’m voting no for that reason,” Friedel told Volek. “I know you can do better. In the private sector, we don’t just do our job — we go over and above. If this is in fact your last year, it’s important to leave a legacy for future administrators.”

“Tina puts a lot of time and effort in this position,” Cimmino said. “She deals with 11 personalities up here and 900 employees while pleasing 110,000 people. That speaks for itself.”

“I’m very proud to say Ms. Volek has done an exceptional job,” Hanel said. “She is the longest-serving administrator the city of Billings has ever had. We as a council will have the tremendous job of replacing her in the next 12 months.”

“I take your comments to heart,” Volek told the city council, “and I’ll work to ensure we have a smooth transition.”