City may appeal ruling on fired officer

Published 10:20 am Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Former Ironton Police officer Beth Rist may not get her job back as soon as she had hoped — or even at all — despite an arbitrator’s ruling earlier this month that reinstated her to the force.

Claiming that she has been treated unfairly and inconsistently compared to discipline for other officers, Rist has been fighting to get her job back since Mayor Rich Blankenship fired her in October for falsifying a police report. City officials maintain that they did the right thing because Rist broke the law.

Ironton’s City Council met in a special session last week, voting 5-2 to give the mayor the authority to pursue a court action seeking to overturn the arbitrator’s decision. This is a move for which Blankenship says council’s vote was needed because a legal action would be initiated, alhtough at least one councilman disputed that it had anything to do with the city’s legislative body.

Email newsletter signup

“I asked council’s authority to appeal the arbitrator’s decision, if I choose to do so,” Blankenship said. “Right now, I’m just gathering information to see what is in the best interest of the city.”

Blankenship said that he was originally under the belief that the city had no recourse after the decision was handed down but that he was later told by labor consultant Bob Cross that the decision could be appealed. The mayor has 90 days to file the appeal.

But Rist’s attorney, Warren Morford, says that, while the Ohio Revised Code does provide some circumstances where rulings can be appealed, none of those apply in this case.

“I (maintain) that the arbitrator’s decision was proper and will withstand court scrutiny,” Morford said. “I think it is reprehensible that the city would even consider trying to vacate the arbitrator’s ruling. It is a waste of taxpayers’ money, a waste of the court’s time and a waste of everyone’s resources.”

Morford says this is yet another example that the city continues to treat Rist unfairly.

“She won fair and square against great odds. They lost,” Morford said. “It is time for the city of Ironton and the powers that be to realize that and do what the law and the collective bargaining agreement requires them to do.”

Both Morford and Rist have alleged throughout that she is the victim of unfair treatment.

“There is no question that someone is out to get her, with the police chief (Jim Carey) among them,” Morford said, adding that Rist has been undisputably the most productive officer. “Why (are they out to get her)? You would have to ask them that question.”

Blankenship dismisses all those claims and any allegations that any personnel conflicts within the police department influenced his thought process during this situation.

“She broke the law while on duty. Her credibility for the future is questionable,” he said. “That was the one and only factor that I used to base my decision to terminate her employment.”

Rist remains upset that the city won’t allow her to return to work following the July 9 ruling that stated the city “had no just cause to discharge” her and that she must be “restored to employment immediately effective upon receipt of this decision.”

“All the money the city has spent and will spend, this is over a $130 traffic ticket,” she said.

In addition to saying that he is following the advise of the city’s legal counsel, Blankenship defended the city’s position to postpone Rist’s return to the force that she served on for 13 years because of her probation status tied to her pleading guilty to misdemeanor charge of falsification.

“At this point in time, she cannot come back to duty because she is on probation and there are certain terms of that probation that prevent her from performing her duties,” he said, specifically citing the ability to carry a handgun or being in the presence of felons.

As far as shifting her to another position on the force, Blankenship said that won’t work either because the dispatching posts are represented by another union and any light-duty positions are designed to be short-term for someone suffering from an injury.

On Rist’s behalf, Morford plans to file this week a motion with Common Pleas Judge Fred Crow — who heard the criminal case against the former officer — to have her probation sentence terminated. That hearing is expected to be set for Aug. 21.

When city council voted 5-2 to authorize the mayor to contest the ruling if he so chooses, Councilmen Frank Murphy and Bob Cleary were the dissenting votes.

Murphy said he voted against it for several reasons including the fact the FOP collective bargaining agreement says the city will accept arbitrator rulings as final and that this isn’t something that falls under council’s authority in the first place.

“This is everyday operations of the city,” Murphy said. “And I truly feel that she has been discriminated against.”

“The majority of Ironton wants her back to work and that is whom we represent,” he said. “That is what the people want and that is what we should give them.”

Mike Lutz was one of the five who voted to allow the mayor to proceed, although he says that he is troubled by entire situation and how it is being handled.

“The whole thing was too hastily done,” he said, adding that he actually voted “no” to leave executive session because he still had several unanswered questions about a variety of things including FOP representation, legality of the appeal, exactly what the grievance outlined and how her probation status impacts her job duties. However, when the measure giving the mayor authority was brought to the floor Lutz responded in the affirmative.

“When it came time to vote, I voted “yes” because it was the only way I could see to proceed without anyone getting into trouble.”

This is the second time Rist has filed action against the city police department alleging unfair treatment. The first time was in 2001. She won that lawsuit, receiving an undisclosed settlement.

Blankenship terminated Rist in October 2008 after the incident in August during which Rist stopped a city resident, Dolly Newcomb, for running a stop sign.

Rist determined Newcomb was driving without a license or insurance but allowed Newcomb’s daughter, Jamie Sparks, to come to the scene and take the ticket instead of Newcomb.

When Sparks went to court to answer the traffic citation, her license was revoked because the car in question was uninsured. Sparks then allegedly contacted Rist and then Chief Jim Carey to get her license restored.

The matter was investigated internally and by the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation.

Rist was indicted by a Lawrence County grand jury on a felony charge of tampering with evidence but later pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of falsification and placed on probation.