Council OKs settlement over officers

By Susan K. Schmeichel
Friday, October 4, 2002

McKeesport Council has approved an out-of-court settlement in a federal lawsuit involving the reassignments of 13 police officers and fire department deputies.

The settlement negotiated last month by U.S. District Judge Donetta Ambrose does not become final until it is signed by the 13 officers involved.

The officers, who are still employed by the city, will be reinstated to their acting positions and will be allowed to retain their positions if they pass the civil-service exam. The lawsuit brought by the officers stemmed from Mayor Wayne Kucich's decision to demote the officers soon after he took office in January 2000.

Kucich said the demotions were a promise to implement civil-service testing for command positions in both the police and fire departments. The 13 officers, though, contend Kucich's actions were motivated by their alleged support of mayoral opponent and now Council President James Brewster.

As part of the settlement, the city will pay back wages to 13 officers, as well as attorney's fees.

The back-wage claim averages approximately $30,000 per officer, minus taxes and other deductions. The money owed the officers will be paid in two installments next February and August.

The attorney's fees are approximately $200,000. McKeesport's insurance carrier will pay the $200,000 toward the fees, with the city submitting payment of the back-wage claim.

"We are very pleased with the settlement - $600,000 is a substantial amount of money," Sam Cordes, attorney for the officers, said Thursday.

Cordes said the settlement "makes it clear that the mayor did what he is alleged to have done."

Kucich, though, said there is no admission of liability or fault with the settlement.

"Taking care of business - that's how I view it," Kucich said. "Sometimes in operating the city, you are called upon, as mayor, to put aside your personal beliefs and make a decision that is better for the city in the long run. This is one of those decisions."

Brewster abstained from council's vote on the settlement, which was approved by a vote of 5-1. Voting against the settlement was Councilwoman Laura Jenkins. Voting in favor of the settlement were Councilmen Dale McCall, Lance Cash Sr., Regis McLaughlin, Darryl Seqina and Richard Dellapenna.

Brewster said that council's main concern is that the officers' reinstatements be part of the settlement.

"We felt that it is the fair thing to do," he said, adding that the financial part of the settlement was handled by the judge and the attorneys.

Brewster said council had to weigh the possibility of a potential loss of $2.5 million if the case had gone to trial.

"It seemed clear from discussions with the attorney that a lesser settlement would be in the best interest of the people of McKeesport," he said. "We are hoping that it is over and we can move on to more positive things in the city."

Only five of the 13 officers are still employed by McKeesport.