EAST PEORIA — The City Council approved a $60,000 settlement with a female Public Works employee who sued the city and several city employees in federal court in 2015 over alleged discrimination and harassment based on her gender.
Mayor Dave Mingus voted against the settlement agreement on Tuesday, even though his son, Public Works employee Adam Mingus, is one of the defendants named in the lawsuit.
“I get the appearance part of it,” City Attorney Dennis Triggs said Thursday, “but it is not a legal conflict of interest.”
The agreement was approved on its second reading by the council by a 3-2 vote, with Commissioner John Kahl joining Mingus in opposition. They both said a settlement sets a bad precedent.
“I voted no because I do not want to establish a precedent of automatically settling lawsuits,” Mayor Mingus said Thursday.
Saying it would save money in the long run, Commissioners Gary Densberger, Dan Decker and Tim Jeffers supported the settlement that effectively ends the lawsuit.
“It’s time to quit; we’re done,” Jeffers said at Tuesday’s council meeting. “The insurance and legal (representatives) informed us (the settlement) puts the city at zero risk moving forward.”
City employee Heidi O’Keefe, 34, of East Peoria alleged in the lawsuit that was filed Jan. 30, 2015, in U.S. District Court in Peoria that she was the frequent subject of hostile comments regarding her job assignments that pertained solely to her being female.
Many of her co-workers and supervisors openly expressed disdain for a female’s presence in the department and frequently made comments regarding their feelings that women did not belong in the department and should not be assigned to do a man’s job, the suit alleged.
O’Keefe also alleges in the suit that she was required to perform work-related tasks that she believed were dangerous and that by complaining about it, she was set up for retribution and reprisals, specifically from employee Adam Mingus.
Also named were Steve Ferguson, the director of Public Works; Ray Roese, supervisor of the Water Department; and Rick Semonski, supervisor of the Streets Department.
The settlement was reached by attorneys for the city’s insurance company, which is paying the costs of the settlement, and attorneys representing O’Keefe.
“Every penny comes from the insurance carrier. The city refused to cooperate,” Triggs said. “The insurance company and their attorneys believe that the cost of defending the action could exceed $60,000.”
O’Keefe won an earlier arbitration settlement with the city in federal court. She had been fired in 2013 from Public Works for driving under the influence of alcohol, an action that resulted in the temporary loss of her Commercial Driver’s License. Her suspended CDL was restored the same day she received notice from Public Works that she had been fired.
In arbitration, it was argued that other Public Works employees were simply reassigned to positions that didn’t require a CDL after a legal license suspension.
“Specifically, similarly-situated male co-workers who lost their CDLs were allowed to remain in employment with the department whereas O’Keefe was terminated, ostensibly for the same infraction,” the lawsuit states.
O’Keefe won her job back in arbitration and still works for the city today.
Carl Reardon, one of the attorneys who represented O’Keefe, would only say it is time for his client and the city to put the lawsuit in the past.
“We are very pleased that a settlement has been reached,” Reardon said Thursday. “A trial on the merits of the case has been avoided and Heidi O’Keefe is very much looking forward to a career with the city of East Peoria with all the bumps in the road smoothed over.”
“There is an earnest effort on the part of the employer and the employee to have a fresh start, and the employee hopes that public discussion about the settlement agreement will not complicate the employee’s life generally and specifically at work,” he said. “Litigation such as this is a huge distraction in any operation and very time-consuming for city employees. There is a hope on the part of all parties to return to normalcy.”
Scott Hilyard is the Journal Star communities reporter. He can be reached at 686-3244 and email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @scotthilyard.