Hallsmith loses appeal in wrongful termination case

MONTPELIER — The city of Montpelier had just cause to fire former planning director Gwendolyn Hallsmith, according to a decision made Monday.

Independent hearing officer Michael J. Marks issued a decision on the post-termination appeal of Hallsmith concerning the 2013 termination of her employment by the City of Montpelier, denying her appeal in which Hallmsith said she was unjustly fired.

Gwendolyn Hallsmith (Courtesy photo)

Gwendolyn Hallsmith (Courtesy photo)

The hearing officer’s decision was rendered after two full days of hearings in November and consideration of detailed written submissions by the city and Hallsmith. The purpose of the hearings was for the city to prove there was just cause to fire her. Hallsmith said, in addition to being fired for no just causes, that she was fired in retaliation for speaking out about public banking.

Montpelier City Manager William Fraser, her former boss, fired Hallsmith in November 2013.

In the decision rendered by Marks, he stated there were grounds for the termination and said Hallsmith violated city several policies. He cited Hallsmith having an adversarial relationship with the city council and the planning commission. Marks wrote, “For at least one year prior to her termination, Ms. Hallsmith’s relationship with the City Planning Commission and the City Council was adversarial and not productive.”

He also stated that Hallmsith refused to correct performance issues when Fraser brought them to her attention. Marks wrote that, “Rather than respond constructively to her supervisor’s concerns, Hallsmith argued that her poor relationship with the mayor and city council was driven by their disagreement with her advocacy for public banking…”

Marks stated that Hallsmith had “off the record” conversations with news reporters that were intended to pressure the city against taking disciplinary action against her. She had handed over copies of a memoranda between Fraser and herself to the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus and ignored Fraser’s inquires over whether or not she knew anything about the media obtaining the documents.

“Ms. Hallsmith correctly admitted that she made a horrible mistake in making her personnel issues a public story,” Marks wrote in the decision.

He also stated that Hallsmith publicly destroyed her working relationship with the city.

Marks denied any claims that Hallsmiths’ termination was motivated by her advocacy for public banking.

“It is true that the Mayor expressed dissatisfaction with Ms. Hallsmith’s opinions on public banking. It is a leap, however, to equate that dissatisfaction with a campaign on his part to fire Ms. Hallsmith for her views,” he wrote. “There is an overwhelming record of behavior by Ms. Hallsmith that destroyed any working relationship with the Planning Commission and others in the City. Ms. Hallsmith was insubordinate, refused to comply with clear directives, and used public email addresses for her own purposes.”

Fraser said in an interview that the decision should clear the air about any accusations that the mayor, a lobbyist who represents financial institutions like Bank of America and Wells Fargo, was behind Hallsmith’s firing.

“I’ve known all along, as the person who made the decision, I’d known all along it had nothing to do with it,” he said.

Fraser said he is pleased with the decision.

“It fits what we have been saying all along and we’re glad that it’s been reviewed independently and we are glad that the independent hearing officer agreed with the city,” he said.

The city gave her the November 2015 grievance hearing, which served as the post-termination meeting in November 2013, when Fraser designated Assistant Manager Jessie Baker to serve as hearing officer. Hallsmith objected, arguing that Baker could not be impartial because she had been personally involved in the events leading up to her termination.

Hallsmith contested the firing in 2014 in Washington County Superior Court, which sided with her in August 2014. The city appealed the decision, and at a City Council meeting in September 2014, voted to bring it to the Vermont Supreme Court.

The city argued Hallsmith received the process she was due. The Supreme Court disagreed, and ruled in June in favor of Hallsmith, stating she deserves a proper grievance hearing. That opened the door for the possibility of her returning to work at City Hall.

Marks, who works at mediation, arbitration and negotiation firm MarksPowers LLP in Middlebury, was selected by the city to be the independent hearing officer.

“This has been a long and difficult process and it will be good to put it behind us,” Hollar said Monday.

Hallsmith did return calls or emails.

Read the decision below:

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