In Post-Election Surprise, Council Votes on $125K Settlement with Fired Whistleblower

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Monday, November 11, 2019, 7:55 am
Alice Dreger

Above: Troy Williams (photo by Alice Dreger)

Note: This story has been updated at the end to report that City Council voted 5-0 in favor of the settlement.

In a post-election surprise, tomorrow’s published agenda of East Lansing’s City Council shows that the City put off public discussion of a settlement agreement reached over a month ago with fired whistleblower Troy Williams.

The settlement agreement that Council will consider finalizing tomorrow night is dated October 4. City Council held two business meetings between that date and the November 5 election — two meetings at which the matter could have been publicly raised and discussed.

Instead, the Council and City staff stayed absolutely silent on the controversial and costly matter until after the election had ended, effectively keeping the settlement out of the public eye.

The delay also made it so that the new Council, and not the old, will have to make the tough political decision about whether to agree to the terms of this settlement, including a $125,000 payout.

A long history of Williams trying to shine a light on a long history of violations

During the eight years he worked for the City, Troy Williams blew the whistle repeatedly on health and safety violations at the city’s wastewater treatment plant. He saw his claims steadily backed by independent government investigations.

A multi-year investigative series by ELi found that, under City Manager George Lahanas’s leadership, the City failed to follow health and safety laws again and again.

The dangerous mishandling of a major mercury spill in November 2013 was covered-up for months. And for at least seven years, City administrators knew there was high-risk friable asbestos at the plant, yet workers were needlessly exposed without any warning or proper equipment, in flagrant violation of multiple laws.

The City fired Williams, 46, on New Year’s Eve 2018, claiming it could not find any job to accommodate the two disabilities he had acquired at the plant. (Williams can’t lift heavy objects with his right arm, and he can’t risk more lung exposure to noxious fumes or substances.)

The firing came after Williams and eight other plant workers lost a lawsuit against the City claiming they had been harmed by the mishandling of mercury and asbestos. The law required that the workers prove City managers intentionally set out to harm them, rather than harmed them through negligence, and the Court found the workers could not prove intentional harm.

In its ruling, the Michigan Court of Appeals strongly criticized City management, writing in part that “As was the case with the WWTP’s statutory violations involving asbestos containing material, authorities rightly cited and fined East Lansing for not having in place an emergency plan to handle such spills, not informing employees of the [mercury] spill, and not properly cleaning the spill.”

Last May, East Lansing resident John Kloswick called on the City Council “to pass a resolution thanking and commending Mr. Williams for his efforts to get our City to obey the law.” Kloswick wanted Council to encourage, not fight, whistleblowers like Williams.

But in the settlement agreement penned by the attorneys, the City admits no wrongdoing and provides little hint of what Williams experienced during his employ with East Lansing.

Making an example of this whistleblower?

Williams told ELi in March that he believed the City fired him Dec. 31, 2018, because top management, including Lahanas, knew he wasn’t going to stop being a watchdog.

Williams believes the goal of treating him poorly was not only to punish him personally for troublemaking, but also to make an example of him to other workers who might speak up when they saw someone in the City breaking the law, harming the environment, or threatening people’s health.

We reported last month that employees of the City have expressed to ELi worries about whistleblowing and about leaking information to the press, because of the way Troy Williams has been treated.

In March I asked Williams why he pushed so hard, knowing he could lose his job.

“I didn’t want to see anybody get hurt or killed,” he told me. “I was more afraid of that than of losing my job.”

The settlement agreement on tomorrow night’s agenda calls for the City of East Lansing to pay Williams a total of $125,000 to drop all of his claims against the City, including the claim that he was wrongly fired for being a whistleblower.

Out of the sum paid to him by the City, Williams will have to pay his attorneys and the required taxes on the settlement income.

Danieleski said today that documents not released to the public leave Williams' the legal right to seek payment for additional healthcare expenses for future lung disease attributable to asbestos exposure at the plant. The settlement agreement doesn't guarantee that the City will pay for those costs; the City can fight his claims again, in which case he would have to sue again.

Documents not released also indicate that the city will pay the medical liens against Williams (about $5,900) according to Danieleski.

He will have to find health insurance to try to cover himself and his family.

The City’s hired attorney for this matter, Tom Fleury, “will be in attendance at the City Council meeting to represent the settlement agreement,” according to a staff memo.

By ELi’s calculation, when all is said and done in the case of the problems at the plant, Fleury and his firm will walk away with hundreds of thousands of dollars more from East Lansing’s taxpayers than Williams will.

A new Council faces old problems

The top two vote-getters in last week’s election – Jessy Gregg and Lisa Babcock – ran in part on the issue of transparency, decrying the City’s record. The two will be sworn in just an hour or so before they are asked to decide on this matter.

Mark Meadows will also be sworn in on Tuesday, having come in a distant third in the election, 20 percentage points behind the two front-runners. For the last four years, Meadows has been serving as mayor, a job that has given him substantial control over what appears and doesn’t appear on the Council’s agendas.

The settlement agreement with Troy Williams is scheduled as the last item on the Council’s agenda. Citizens wishing to speak to the matter can do so during the period set aside for public comment, which at this meeting will take place after the swearing-in ceremony and decision about who will be the next Mayor of the City of East Lansing.

Update, Nov. 13: Council voted 5-0 in favor of authorizing the City Manager to sign the global settlement agreement.

During the discussion, Jessy Gregg said she spoke to the City’s hired attorney Tom Fleury before the meeting and that he had answered her questions to her satisfaction. She said she was glad the discussion was being held in open session.

Mark Meadows said having the discussion in open session is different from how the City has operated in the past, but he said he thinks this is the right way to do it. (Earlier in the meeting, Ruth Beier and Aaron Stephens were elected the new Mayor and Mayor Pro Tem and both said they would lead the City in a new direction in terms of transparency.)

Meadows and Beier also noted that they had not previously seen settlements that allowed a worker to come back and ask for payment for healthcare needed for future disease related to past work. Payment for future healthcare needs is not provided in the settlement; Williams keeps the right to ask for coverage through workers' comp, and those requests can be denied, in which case he would have to decide whether to try to sue again.

Williams’ lawyer Manda Danieleski told ELi today that Troy Williams will net about two-thirds of the settlement after he pays his lawyers and the taxes on the settlement. That puts his net from the settlement at about $82,500. © 2013-2020 East Lansing Info