Madison County officials and the Veterans Assistance Commission remain at a stalemate months after the last round of court actions over VAC superintendent Brad Lavite, and they may be headed back to court.
Lavite is currently barred from entering the Madison County administration building where the VAC offices are located. In March 2015, Lavite had a mental breakdown attributed to post-traumatic stress disorder relating to his combat service. He kicked out the window of a police car during the episode. He was subsequently declared fit to return to work by the PTSD specialist at the St. Louis Veterans Administration medical center, Dr. Jane Loitman, but Jeremy Jewell, a child psychologist employed by the county, disagreed.
Loitman’s letter dated March 23 stated simply that Lavite was undergoing continuing treatment at the VA’s PTSD clinic and he was cleared to return to work without restrictions. Jewell’s report, as provided by the VAC’s attorney, stated that Lavite had passed various psychological tests, but stated that he was unfit to return to duty and should continue to follow his psychiatrist’s instructions.
Since then, the county administration has refused to allow Lavite to enter the administration building. Both sides have indicated a wish for Lavite to return, but have been unable to agree on terms.
“We had to come up with a way to make sure everyone is safe here,” said Madison County Board Chairman Alan Dunstan. “We will do whatever we can to get this thing settled. But what if we don’t do our due diligence and something happens?”
By law, the VAC is funded and housed by the county, but is an independent agency. VAC leaders, who are nominated from area veterans’ organizations, filed a lawsuit on Lavite’s behalf, asking the court to require Madison County to allow him to return to his office and to honor payment vouchers for their attorneys’ fees.
The counts were dismissed by Madison County Associate Judge Steven Stobbs, stating that Lavite had no standing to seek the order. Attorney Thomas Burkart, the VAC, said he believes those rulings to be in error and conflicting with case law and the Military Veterans Assistance Act, and has filed appeals.
A meeting was set in September to work out the issues between the VAC and the county. County attorney John Gilbert said that meeting was subsequently canceled.
“Their attorney canceled it, and insisted on a proposal from the county in writing,” Gilbert said. “We believed we were not at that point, and hoped to have an additional face-to-face meeting to address the additional issues.”
Burkart said he believed it was inappropriate for the county to try to set a meeting with VAC officials without the presence of legal counsel. He said he only learned about the meeting from reading it in the Belleville News-Democrat.
Gilbert said he disagrees with Burkart’s interpretation that all communications must go through the attorneys. “I do not think that is the law and we’ve simply agreed to disagree,” he said.
Since then, emails between Burkart and Gilbert indicate that the VAC wants a formal proposal in writing setting the rules for Lavite’s return, and county officials believe another meeting is necessary before anything is put in writing.
“The details of trying to get Mr. Lavite permitted to return to the building are really what we need to focus on,” Gilbert said. “The county perceived we were making some progress, and wanted to meet again to hammer out a solution.”
There is also a “collateral” issue of paying Burkart’s bills, which Gilbert said the county has “every intention” of doing once they are submitted to the county finance committee. There are also longer-range issues of employee oversight, which he stressed did not mean county oversight of the VAC.
In November, the VAC voted to reject further meetings unless the county was willing to put its proposal in writing. They also voted to proceed with the appeals on the lawsuit. The appeal is pending in the 5th District Appellate Court, with filings due in late January. “I maintain it is a shame the county has to incur so much expense litigating issues that have already been litigated and decided,” Burkart said.
Burkart also said discussions have taken place for a federal civil lawsuit against the county alleging violations of Lavite’s constitutional rights based upon denial of access to government facilities and adverse job action based on a perceived handicap, he said.
At the moment, no such suit has been filed, Burkart said. For one thing, the county has continued to pay Lavite’s salary in accordance with its funding of the VAC. In addition, Burkart said, they felt it would be embarrassing to the county if a federal court found they had discriminated against a decorated veteran. Lavite has two years to file such a suit, however, and Burkart said it is not off the table.
Lavite continues to run the VAC’s operations off-site, communicating with his staff electronically, Burkart said. “We still hold out hope that the county, or the representatives who are making these horrible decisions, will change their course,” Burkart said.
Dunstan said that he believes Lavite does a good job as VAC superintendent. But he maintains that another face-to-face meeting is needed before a plan can be codified in writing. “I want to see Mr. Lavite come back,” he said.