Madison County Board members are questioning county Treasurer Kurt Prenzler’s decision to appeal the verdict of a discrimination suit, including members of his own party.
The County Board held a special meeting in closed session Wednesday night primarily to call Prenzler before the entire board and question him about the suit. The meeting ended with one board member shouting at Prenzler and telling him, “I’m going to get you,” after which a sheriff’s deputy intervened. The board member said he was speaking in a political sense.
In 2014, former comptroller Linda Dunnagan sued Prenzler and the treasurer’s office for discrimination, alleging that she was pressured to quit after she returned to work following a life-threatening illness. She declined and said she wanted to continue working, but then Prenzler eliminated her position.
Dunnagan sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act in federal court. According to the County Board’s finance committee, Prenzler and Dunnagan went before a federal Equal Employment Opportunity commission for mediation. It was recommended that Prenzler settle the suit, but Prenzler refused.
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The lawsuit went to federal court, and a trial jury sided with Dunnagan, awarding compensatory damages of $450,000, plus legal expenses and lost wages.
Prenzler has said he intends to appeal. He has maintained that Dunnagan’s position was eliminated as a cost-saving measure. He declined to comment further until he has had a chance to consult with counsel, as the issue involves pending litigation, he said.
However, members of the finance committee have questioned his decisions, including Republicans. Prenzler is the only Republican in countywide office in Madison County, and currently is challenging County Board Chairman Alan Dunstan in the November election.
“Members of both parties recognize how terrible this situation has become,” said County Board member Bill Meyer (R-Hamel). “There is no excuse for discriminating against any employee, much less a disabled employee.”
Meyer and Prenzler apparently had words after the Wednesday night meeting, during which Meyer shouted at him. Prenzler said he walked away and went down the stairs to another level of the building. He then looked back up and saw a sheriff’s deputy speaking to Meyer.
Meyer said he “told (Prenzler) what I thought of him,” but said there was no altercation. He said the deputy came over afterward and told him, “That man is an elected official.” He said he replied, “I’m an elected official too,” and that was the end of the discussion.
Meyer, who lost a primary race a few weeks ago and will have to step down in November, acknowledged that there is some animosity.
“I’m just sick and tired of (Prenzler’s) antics,” Meyer said. “He has cost us over $8 million. He sold bonds costing us $1.8 million, his investment policies have left over a million dollars a year on the table. I’ve brought those things up in finance committee meetings... He can’t hurt me anymore, since I’ve already lost the primary to the guy he endorsed.”
Prenzler said Meyer told him, “I’m going to get you.” Prenzler declined to comment further on the incident or on his relationship with Meyer, except to say he was “really shocked.”
Meyer confirmed the phrase, but said his meaning was that he would put his fundraising money behind Dunstan, a Democrat, in the November election. He said that despite current tensions, he does not believe bipartisanship is breaking down in Madison County.
Finance committee Chairman Jack Minner (D-Edwardsville) said he believes Prenzler should have settled the suit, as it would have cost one-third of the legal fees alone. County board members have said they believed the case could have been settled for $60,000; Prenzler has disputed the amount.
“Had Mr. Prenzler reviewed the facts of the case, admitted his responsibility and accepted the advice of his legal counsel to settle, it would have saved Madison County taxpayers at least a half-million dollars,” Minner said.
According to documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, the current costs of the Dunnagan suit include the $450,000 jury verdict, $152,000 in legal fees paid to date; $37,000 in legal expenses not yet paid; $17,000 in legal fees for post-trial motions; $80,000 for Dunnagan’s back pay; $165,000 for the plaintiff’s attorney’s fees; $50,000 for legal fees for the appeal; and if unsuccessful, another $60,000 for the plaintiff’s appeal fees. In all, the cost would be approximately $1.02 million.
Meyer said he believes Prenzler declined to settle the suit because it would have been negative publicity right before his 2014 re-election.
“Now he says he wants to appeal the verdict, conveniently before his 2016 election campaign for chairman,” Meyer said. “How many more of Kurt Prenzler’s politically-motivated, costly decisions are the taxpayers going to tolerate?”
However, Prenzler said he believes the county board members are wrong about the potential for a $60,000 settlement. He said the only settlement amount he recalls was for $175,000, and called the county board members’ criticisms “political theater.”
Board member Brenda Roosevelt (D-Glen Carbon) said she opposes the appeal and thus costing the county more legal fees, including defense counsel fees if they are unsuccessful.
“The taxpayers are going to have to pay the price for his bad judgment,” Roosevelt said. “Unfortunately, he continues to compound his awful choices as treasurer by making this poor woman wait for justice, and by causing the cost of this whole situation to spiral out of control for taxpayers.”
Finance committee member Kelly Tracy (D-Marine) has been one of Prenzler’s most outspoken critics. “Mr. Prenzler’s blatant disregard for employees, fellow elected officials and his constant abuse of his elected position are continuing to cost taxpayers even more money, yet he continues to pretend that he is somehow saving money in his budget,” Tracy said. “If he could just focus on his duties as treasurer instead of worrying about his next press release, the people of Madison County would be better off.”
Other Republican board members expressed hesitation with commenting, as the meeting was held in closed session or because they said it felt inappropriate to comment on a fellow Republican. Board member Mick Madison (R-Bethalto) objected to the issuing of a press release afterward, stating that he believed the criticism was politically motivated.
“I'm very concerned that even by having the meeting, it telegraphs to the opposition in the suit that there are some things bothering us,” Madison said. “I don't want to jeopardize the outcome of this case.”