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Fired health officer files suit against city

| Thursday, Sept. 25, 2008

Fired city health and code enforcement officer Rita Bornstein is suing the City of Connellsville in an attempt to get her job back.

In papers filed last week, Bornstein's attorney Benjamin Goodwin of Uniontown wrote, "It is believed and therefore averred that (Bornstein) was removed for political reasons."

Bornstein's health officer position was as a civil service employee, so the lawsuit is in two parts: a petition for appeal of discharge of a civil service employee and wrongful discharge from code enforcement without formal action by city council.

The suit contends council violated the Sunshine Act and the firing violated Bornstein's right to procedural due process. Bornstein seeks reinstatement, back pay and all legal expenses.

The firing followed a State Ethics Commission investigation, completed in April, which found that Bornstein violated the Ethics Act by using city time and a city computer to perform health work for South Connellsville and Dunbar Borough. 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 SEC matter is closed.

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

The lawsuit states, "The letter followed a private meeting between Mayor Judy Reed and Councilman David McIntire, director of public health and safety." It continues, "The aforesaid meeting was conducted without notice to or the attendance of the other members of city council. Councilman David McIntire has indicated that he proffered the charges against (Bornstein) at the direction of Connellsville Mayor Judy D. Reed."

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, 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 that featured a private vote.

City solicitor Tom Bowlen recused himself because he has worked for Bornstein in personal matters.

Attorney John Toohey conducted the hearing. He said council "is empowered by statute to be conducting a hearing, with any discipline up to and including discharge."

Bornstein's suit contends that 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," says the lawsuit.

"The code officer firing was done by letter, and never by a vote of council. I want my job back with no stipulations," Bornstein said Wednesday. "I don't think I did anything wrong."

Reed said she could not comment. "I have not actually seen the suit. I'd better not comment."

Reed would not say who will represent the city in the lawsuit. "Solicitor Bowlen has recused himself. We know that. I can't comment on who will represent the city."

The city has 20 days to respond in writing to the lawsuit.

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