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Fired Employee Sues Town

Marilyn Ozols, fired in June, seeks reinstatement, lost wages and benefits, and other relief; She says town employees fabricated performance deficiencies, harassed her, and forced her to ignore zoning regulations.

Marilyn Ozols, the town's former top planning and zoning official, has filed a lawsuit against the town, against Town Engineer Mike Ott, and First Selectman Fillmore McPherson.

Ozols says in the suit that she was fired because she "spoke out on unethical and illegal practices, mismanagement and abuse of authority, and because she complained about violations of state and federal law." The suit essentially characterizes Ozols as a whistleblower as defined by Connecticut General Statutes, Section 31-51m.

The law firm representing Ozols, Madsen, Prestley & Parenteau, LLC of New London says on its website that "Connecticut General Statutes § 31-51m is the primary statutory tort that provides protection to employees against discharge, discipline or other penalty based on reporting, verbally or in writing, to a public body, a violation or suspected violation of any state or federal law or regulation, or any municipal ordinance or regulation. In addition, an employee of a municipality is also protected when reporting unethical practices, mismanagement or abuse of authority by such employer to a public body."

Ozols fired due to inconsistent performance, being uncooperative, using poor judgment, town said earlier this year

First Selectman Fillmore McPherson said late last week that he was not able to comment on the lawsuit because it is pending litigation. But, McPherson said in a termination letter to Ozols earlier this year that she was being fired, among other reasons, for "inconsistent performance, .. a pattern of uncooperative behavior, ... poor judgment ..., and failure to communicate ... "

 McPherson said earlier this year that "The Board of Selectmen held two days of public hearings after which we issued Findings and Conclusions.  These documents demonstrate that the issues raised [by] Atty. Kapadia ... are capricious and have nothing to do with our actions.  Ms. Ozols was clearly terminated for entirely different reasons."

The lawsuit, filed in mid-September, notes that Ozols began working for the town in 2000, with more then 10 years of experience in zoning matters. When she was hired, the suit says, "the Town of Madison Planning and Zoning Commission had decided that the zoning regulations were to be given a strict reading and consistent application to all applicants in order to preserve and maintain the character and appeal of town."

Ozols originally took direction from Planning and Zoning Commission

When she was hired, the suit says, Ozols took direction from the Planning and Zoning Commission and was commended for her work by members of the commission.

"Plaintiff believed it was in the best interest of the Town taxpayers to have an even, consistent, and correct application of zoning rules in order to maintain the character of the Town so taht all taxpayers are treated the same and the laws and regulations governing zoning matters are correctly applied."

In 2010, Ozols reported to First Selectman McPherson. At the same time, Town Engineer Ott submitted zoning applications on behalf of the town. "In 2010 and prior years ... the zoning applications that Defendent Ott submitted on behalf of the town often did not meet all of the requirements of zoning regulations requiring [Ozols] to seek compliance from Ott."

Town garage application incomplete, Ozols explains to Ott

The suit makes specific reference to a zoning application submitted for the town garage. Ozols let Ott know that the application was incomplete. "In February of 2010, ... McPherson issued a verbal warning to [Ozols] criticizing her for expressing the view that ... Ott's application was incomplete and that modifications to the building required additional review. [Ozols] explained that the zoning regulations applied evening to all applicants and that she sid not have the authority to ignore planning and zoning regulations and that it would be unethical for her to do so."

Then, in April of 2010, Ott submitted another zoning application involving a special exception permit on behalf of the town, the suit says. "Due to irregularities in the zoning application" Ozols reviewed it with Planning and Zoning Commission Chairman Christine Poutot, who asked to have the town submit a complete revised site plan for the project.

The suit says Ozols was chastised for requesting this.

Suit says Ott deliberately mispresented the changes requested

Poutot then met with McPherson, explaining that she had asked for the accurate site plan and that it could be done by "drawing the corrected information on existing plans for the lot affected." Instead of doing so, the suit says, Ott "deliberately misrepresented that the request was for an expensive resurvey of the property by an outside vendor."

Even though Poutot said it was improper for town officials to reprimand Ozols for following Poutot's directives, McPherson issued a written warning to Ozols on April 19, 2010.

"The message was clear to [Ozols] that with respect to zoning applications submitted by the town of in which ... Ott was involved [Ozols] was expected by Town management to relax and ignore zoning standards and not bring to the commission's attention any deficiencies in the Town's application," the suit says.

Ott becomes Ozols' supervisor

Then, in December of 2010, Ott became Ozol's direct supervisor and was hostile to Ozols from the outset of the reporting relationship, the suit says. And, around January, Ozols made it clear she was in favor of an upcoming vote to unionize town employees. "After [Ozols] expressed support for the union and voted in favor of the union, ... Ott and .. McPherson became even more hostile to [Ozols]," the suit says.

In February of 2011, Ott directed Ozols to "change zoning policies with respect to zoning applications affecting inland wetland areas. [Ozols} believe that ... Ott's directives were in violation of Conn. Gen. Stat. Sections 8-3c(a) and 8-26(e)." So, Ozols wrote to the inland wetlands officer, "so that the town would not institute policies that were inconsistent with said statutes ... to protect the Town and taxpayers."

On Feb. 9, 2011, Ott and McPherson admonished her for this, the suit says. Then, Ott told Ozols not to voice her opinions about the inland wetlands requirements for zoning applications, and told her not to report to, inform or involve the commission and "that she was to soley follow the directives of ... Ott in handling zoning matters." McPherson supported this, the suit says.

Poutot repeatedly expresses concerns about escalating process and reprimands

Poutot expressed her concerns about this and asked for a meeting.

Around the same time, Ozols was "continually and falsely accused of having performance deficiences and not taking direction from" Ott. Ozols "was forced to attend performance meetings which were  used as a venue to unfairly and in an abusive manner admonish and criticize" Ozols, the suit says.

A series of meetings about "performance deficiencies and unsubstantiated complaints" followed, and several written warnings were issued, the suit says. Complaints about Ozols included that "it was improper for [Ozols] to take two days to respond to an e-mail inquiry." Ott "was well aware that [Ozols] was consulting with the Chairman of the Commission regarding his application, an activity he did not approve of."

Another written warning and then, suspension

In April, 2011, Ott gave Ozols another written warning and suspended her for three days. Poutot continued to voice her concerns about the process, saying that "because the Commission had not conferrred under Section 8-3(e) of the Connecticut General Statutes the authority upon Mike Ott to function as their agent, he did not have the authority to interpret zoning regulations and to criticize [Ozols]  in interpreting or following the zoning regulations or the directives of the commission."

In May 2011, Ozols attended an executive session of the Board of Selectmen where she was "unfairly attacked and criticized" by Ott, the suit says. In June, Ott suspended Ozols and recommended to the Board of Selectmen that she be fired. During subsequent termination hearings, town officials "were well aware that [Ozols] could not defend herself against untimely attacks from fabricated and vague events from years prior that were unrelated to the reasons that .. Ott disciplined [Ozols]

Comments defamatory and false and designed to ruin reputation, suit says

"The comments against [Ozols] were defamatory and false and designed to ruin her reputation," the suit says.

"[Ozols] employement was terminated because she spoke out on unethical and illegal practices, mismanagement and abuse of authoirty, and because she complained about violations of state and federal law," the suit says. As a result, Ozols has "suffered economic damages including economic loss from the loss of her employment, mental anguish, emotional distress, humiliation and embarrassment, loss of enjoyment of life, harm to reputation, and attorneys' fees and costs."

Charles October 17, 2011 at 09:20 AM
When I built my home in Madison my dealings with Ms. Ozols were always friendly and helpful. She was very smart and I appreciated her patience since I filled out forms my self. What Mr. Ott and Mr. McPhearson looked to have done here is unfortunate. I thought that their witch hunt to embarass her with their silly hearings just made them look bad. I hope it isn't true that the first selectman and the town engineer made her lie and coverup false and misleading information for them because then I would think that's a real legal issue. Good luck Ms. Ozols and thank you for your service to Madison!
Diana October 17, 2011 at 12:17 PM
I had the opposite experience. She made our lives miserable when we were attempting to open a business. I own stores in 4 other CT locations and the way we were treated in Madison was atrocious and cost us an additional $8,500. We found out later that most of it was wasted money and unnecessary measures were imposed on us. What an unfriendly-to-business atmosphere. Good riddance to her and thank you to the town of Madison for finally removing her.
owen charles October 17, 2011 at 01:25 PM
dear diana, still trying to understand this....just out of curiosity, and to understand what you said better, can you say what were the specific 'unnecessary measures' that were imposed on your business? thanks
Linda Corcoran Smith-Criddle October 17, 2011 at 03:43 PM
If the Town would have had the will to establish a Town Ethics Committee after nine years of consideration, this case may not have reached the level that will cost the Town taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars to underwrite.
Pem McNerney (Editor) October 17, 2011 at 06:12 PM
Linda, I agree that an ethics committee could help provide guidance in such a case before it gets to the level of litigation. I know it was still under discussion earlier this year, I'll see if I can find out where they are in the discussions.
Pem McNerney (Editor) October 17, 2011 at 06:56 PM
Linda, First Selectman McPherson says an ethics commission is still under consideration. My recollection of the last discussion is that issues still being resolved include: who should be covered by such a committee (employees or just volunteers on boards and commissions?) and whether it should be a committee that can make binding recommendations or just issue advisory opinions (I think they were leaning towards the latter).
Janet October 20, 2011 at 01:48 AM
I have not had any dealings with Ms. Ozols and cannot comment on the legitimacy of the termination, but I can only hope that our town officials acted properly and fairly in documenting their reasons for termination, and that the taxpayers have not been placed in a position where we are forced to make another "settlement" over personnel issues that should have been handled better. I also hope that our town attorney was consulted prior to the termination action to ensure everything was done properly. If not, some people may need to take responsibility in the event that there are any punitive payments beyond back pay.

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