Former Zink administration assistant Kirby Ellison returned to work Monday in the Hillsboro city building after her successful suit against the city, even as the city pursues a possible appeal with the Ohio Supreme Court.
Ellison was fired from her job as administrative assistant when Drew Hastings took office in January 2012. The city considered Ellison an unclassified at-will employee, but Ellison claimed she was still a classified employee. The courts sided with her, saying paperwork necessary to change her status had never been properly filed with the city’s civil service commission.
The court ordered that she be returned to work with appropriate back pay, which Gary Lewis, the city auditor, said earlier this year could amount to $225,000. But Lewis said Monday the city is waiting on mitigation papers to determine the amount, since any income Ellison made while she was not employed by the city would factor into back pay calculations.
Ellison will be paid $21.83 an hour, which includes across-the-board raises she would have received had her position not been terminated, said Lewis. He said Ellison has opted out of the city’s health package, which means she will receive another $6,000 annually that will be spread across pay periods.
Hillsboro Safety and Service Director Todd Wilkin said he will have Ellison focus on pursuing grants for various projects. Ellison’s expertise had been as a grant writer for the city before she became former Mayor Dick Zink’s administrative assistant.
Ellison won’t work in the same office space she previously occupied, which was adjacent to the mayor’s office. She has been provided a different office in the same building.
Ellison’s return to work for a different administration than the one she previously worked for will present an interesting dynamic. Aside from her suit against the city, Ellison was a leading opponent of Hastings’ plan to disband Hillsboro Fire & Rescue and replace it with a contract with the Paint Creek Joint EMS/Fire District.
She also was one of five local citizens who signed a civil complaint against Hastings in December alleging malfeasance over a rebate of a $500 vacant property fee he had paid. The civil suit was dismissed by Judge Kevin Greer on technical issues, but a separate criminal investigation over the same issue and other matters has been ongoing since December.
After Ellison won her case against the city in Highland County Common Pleas Court, the city appealed to the Fourth District Court of Appeals, which upheld the verdict. In June, the appeals court also denied a motion for reconsideration of its decision.
Court records show that Ralph Holt, safety and service director when Zink was mayor, had indicated back in 2004 that Ellison had been moved from classified to unclassified status – serving at the pleasure of the mayor – but the court ruled that the proper steps had apparently not been taken to officially enact that change.
Holt later acknowledged that he “had no government experience and that he did not know about civil service distinctions between classified and unclassified service,” according to testimony contained in the appeals court decision.
In the initial court decision, visiting Judge Dale Crawford had ruled that even though Holt said he intended to move Ellison to unclassified status, “the appointment was never placed in a journal at the Civil Service Commission… nor was the letter of appointment accompanied by a statement showing the fiduciary duties of the position.”
Henry Arnett, Ellison’s Columbus attorney, said after the appeals court judgment that the court affirmed what Ellison has always claimed. He said he hoped that after two court decisions the city would accept the judgment. He said that in addition to the back pay and benefits, Ellison wanted to have her employment restored, as the courts ordered.
Ellison was hired by the city in 1995 as an administrative assistant in classified civil service. When Zink became mayor in 2004, he appointed Holt as safety and service director.
“The undisputed testimony was when Holt took his position he wanted to give Appellant more money… but didn’t want to put her position in jeopardy,” the original court decision states.
According to a 2004 letter from Holt to the Hillsboro Civil Service Commission, Ellison had served in a classified position as a grant writer until May 1, 2004. At that time, according to Holt’s letter, he announced that he would be “appointing Kirby Ellison from the Classified – Administrative Assistant II/Grant Writer position she presently holds to an unclassified position as an administrative assistant I/grant writer to partially replace Rebecca Creamer in the unclassified service, serving at the pleasure of the mayor.”
When Ellison filed a protest with the civil service commission after she was fired, the commission sided with the city. But in overturning the civil service commission decision, Judge Crawford ruled that Holt had “made an appointment for the Mayor… which he has no authority to do, the appointment was never placed in a journal at the Civil Service Commission… nor was the letter of appointment accompanied by a statement showing the fiduciary duties of the position.”
Reach Gary Abernathy at 937-393-3456 or on Twitter @abernathygary.