Fired official appeals denial of suit against Connellsville

| Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2011

Former Connellsville health and code enforcement officer Rita Bornstein has filed an appeal in Commonwealth Court to a Fayette County judge's denial of a lawsuit she filed claiming she had been fired for political reasons.

In January, Fayette County Judge Steve P. Leskinen ruled against Bornstein's lawsuit filed against the city of Connellsville.

Bornstein was fired Aug. 20, 2008, following a State Ethics Commission investigation completed in April 2008, which found Bornstein violated the Ethics Act by using city time and a city computer to perform health work for South Connellsville and Dunbar boroughs. She also failed to file financial interest statements for several years. Bornstein agreed to file financial interest statements and pay $2,928 to the state to settle the Ethics Commission violations. The commission matter was closed with no criminal prosecution.

Bornstein originally received her termination as code enforcement officer, health officer and zoning officer through a letter placed in her mailbox dated July 9, 2008, and signed by former city Councilman David McIntire, then director of health and public safety.

Between that letter and the Aug. 20 hearing, McIntire presented Bornstein with another letter that stated she was to continue her job as health officer pending the outcome of the hearing. The letter, dated Aug. 14, 2008, states that the hearing will "determine what disciplinary action, if any, the city council sitting as a civil service board, shall take against you in your capacity as health officer."

Council fired Bornstein as health officer following the unadvertised hearing, which included a private vote.

Bornstein's suit contends council sat as a civil service board, a violation of state law. The pertinent statute reads, "No city officer, official or employee shall be eligible for appointment to any civil service board," the lawsuit says.

In Leskinen's ruling, he stated Bornstein suffered "no harm or prejudice by being told, erroneously, that City Council would sit as a 'civil service board' at the discipline hearing," and that the former "city council's disciplinary action of Bornstein was solely based upon the investigation and findings of the State Ethics Commission, which was solely responsible for the initiation, investigation and final adjudication on the allegations of violations of the State Ethics Act."

He also stated that council did not intentionally violate the provisions of the Sunshine Act when it did not advertise the meeting at which Bornstein was terminated, because it dealt with the termination or disciplining action of a public officer or employee.

Also, because the court had no authority to reverse council's decision to terminate Bornstein's employment, the back pay and benefits mentioned in Bornstein's lawsuit in the amount of $37,059 cannot be awarded since it was denied to be paid by council.

Because McIntire could lawfully have suspended Bornstein for 30 days pending the hearing, Leskinen stated the court cannot find any basis to rescind the five-day suspension she was given.

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