DRA faces suit
Alyssa McConnel filed a lawsuit last week against the Downtown Roseburg Association, the city-run nonprofit of which McConnel used to be executive director.
The association’s board of directors fired McConnel in April 2018 for failing to maintain productive relationships with downtown businesses as her contract required, and for making “derogatory” comments about the city’s use of funds in a closed online forum, according to public records.
McConnel alleges the association fired her as retaliation for protected whistleblowing activities, and that the association violated her employment contract by firing her without previous warnings. She is seeking $339,000 in damages for loss of past and future wages plus benefits, and for “humiliation, loss of reputation, mistrust and emotional distress” McConnel experienced as a result of her firing, according to the lawsuit.
Todd Boyd, the association’s board chairman, declined to comment on the lawsuit.
In January, the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries Civil Rights Division dismissed McConnel’s complaint, which included the same allegations as the lawsuit.
McConnel said she hopes that the lawsuit will resolve the issue that has been going on for more than a year.
“I try not to start anything that I can’t finish,” she said Wednesday. “I want it to get wrapped up so everyone can move forward.”
She added she thinks the lawsuit will end in her favor, despite BOLI’s dismissal of her complaint. She said she hopes the lawsuit will hold the city and the association accountable for wrongdoing.
“It’s OK to think something and know something is wrong and talk about it,” McConnel said.
McConnel alleges the association violated her contract by firing her for reasons not related to ethics violations without following a progressive disciplinary model as she was promised. The progressive model would have including a verbal warning followed by a written warning before termination. She also alleges she didn’t receive semi-annual performance reviews as promised.
The association denies McConnel received “several promises” or “assurances” when she was hired that it would use a progressive disciplinary model, according to a position statement sent to BOLI by Tessan Wess, the association’s attorney.
“While the DRA/Park-Smart may elect to follow its progressive discipline procedure, the company is in no way obligated to do so,” Wess cited from the association’s employee handbook.
McConnel alleges her termination without warning was retaliation. During her time as director, she raised concerns to association board members and city officials that the city was acting illegally with regard to the association’s contracts with the city and ParkSmart, the association’s contracted parking enforcer.
In response to the BOLI complaint, the association said McConnel was eager to cut contractual ties with the city. It added she didn’t have a thorough understanding of the association’s budgets and contracts.
McConnel received multiple complaints from downtown business owners about the city’s lack of funding for downtown sidewalks, according to the lawsuit. They also complained about how parking regulations were enforced. The complaints prompted McConnel to investigate how the city used an annual fee paid by the association from parking revenues.
Her investigations led her to believe that the city was kicking back the association’s more than $40,000 annual fee.
“DRA expressly denies that it was ‘kicking back’ revenue to the city,” Wess said in the statement to BOLI. The fee goes to the city’s general fund. “There is no provision in the contract that dictates how the fee must be used,” Wess said.
“(McConnel) was concerned that the city was unlawfully providing certain businesses and individuals with preferential treatment with respect to downtown parking,” the lawsuit reads. “(She) also believed that the city was applying parking rules and standards in a discriminatory manner.”
Wess said the city has no authority to cite people for parking violations, because that is the association’s responsibility.
McConnel was also concerned a parking enforcement vehicle provided to ParkSmart by the city didn’t meet safety and emissions standards. Additionally, city funds provided to the association for garbage can pickup in town weren’t enough to pay a garbage collector minimum wage, according to McConnel.
The veracity of McConnel’s whistle-blowing complaints has no bearing on her retaliation or breach of employment contract allegations. It is unlawful for a nonprofit to take disciplinary action against or prevent an employee from disclosing information the employee “reasonably believes” constitutes wrongdoing, according to Oregon law.
At it did in the past, the association is likely to argue that McConnel’s termination had nothing to do with her whistleblowing activities.