Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
Town pays former zoning officer $21,000 to settle firing dispute

By Suzanne Carlson
Journal Inquirer
Published: Friday, January 27, 2012 1:07 PM EST

VERNON — The town’s former Zoning Enforcement Officer, Abraham Ford, has been paid $21,000 to drop age and racial discrimination complaints in which he had claimed that his discovery of an illegal land deal by former Republican Mayor Jason L. McCoy resulted in his ultimately being fired without cause.

The agreement, which was unanimously approved by the Town Council in executive session on Nov. 15, 2011, was released only Thursday in response to a freedom-of-information request by the Journal Inquirer.

Ford, 61, was the top rated candidate for the zoning enforcement position when he was hired on April 2, 2007. He filed complaints to the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on Sept. 23 following his July 15 firing.

“I am being discriminatorily harassed, faced with a hostile work environment, and discriminated against due to my age and race, African-American,” Ford said in the complaint.

Ford, a Bloomfield resident, had retired as Director of Licenses and Inspections for the city of Hartford prior to applying for his position in Vernon. He was hired at a starting full-time salary of $43,134 for 35 hours per week.

Inaccurate documents

According to the complaint and related documents, the situation unfolded as follows.

In 2006, a few months after losing the mayoral election to Democrat Ellen Marmer, Robert Kleinhans purchased a house on 2.19 acres of land next to Risley Reservoir at 366 Lake Street for $160,000 under the company name CRV Properties, LLC.

While the land was recorded as a single parcel — but not an approved building lot — in land records at the time, Kleinhans and McCoy, acting as his lawyer, created a warranty deed that inaccurately described the land as two lots with two addresses, which they filed with the Town Clerk.

Believing they were purchasing land on which two homes could be built, Terry and Cynthia Virkler, acting as TLV Transformations, Inc., bought the property for $230,000 on June 6, 2007, netting Kleinhans $70,000 over the purchase price.

An existing house at 366 Lake St. was demolished in October 2007 and the Virklers applied for and received foundation permits from the town, based on the inaccurate deed.

They built a home for themselves at 362 Lake Street, which was issued a certificate of occupancy in June 2008.

But the earlier permit expired in 2009, and when the Virklers applied for a building permit for what they thought was a lot at 366 Lake Street, Ford denied the application on Feb. 12, 2009, saying the site plans did not match the proposed floor plan.

Concerned that there was something amiss about the lots, Ford asked for a legal opinion from Democratic Town Attorney Susan Boyan, who confirmed that the layout did not meet minimum lot width requirements and no variance or special permit had been granted for a rear lot.

Legal action threatened

At a public hearing on May 7, 2009, the Virklers said they’d pursue legal action against Kleinhans if the Planning and Zoning Commission did not approve a special permit that would allow them to build a second house.

Terry Virkler said that both Kleinhans and McCoy had assured them the property had two building lots, and they had no reason to question its status when they bought the land.

Town Planner Leonard K. Tundermann said that the matter, “has become a very untidy issue,” as several town officials had acted for years in the belief that the deed which showed two lots was legitimate.

But it wasn’t until Ford denied their application for a second house that the Virklers realized the town had never approved a division of the parcel because doing so would create a non-conforming lot.

By this time, McCoy was elected mayor and had been serving for 1½ years. Kleinhans, a member of the Economic Development Commission at the time and a former Republican council member, was a month away from announcing his intention to apply for the position of Public Works Director, which he later received despite an outcry from Democrats.

The PZC, whose members are appointed by the mayor, then approved the Virklers’ special permit request on May 21, 2009.

Fallout for Ford

Republican council member Mark Etre requested a status report from Ford on Feb. 11, 2009 and a day later, Ford denied the Virklers’ building permit, which is when they discovered the warranty deed drawn up by McCoy and Kleinhans, “was not a legal document,” Ford said.

Ford claimed his performance was subjected to an undue level of scrutiny beginning on Feb. 25, 2009 when Town Administrator John D. Ward told Ford to detail his daily work habits in writing.

On June 22, 2009, Ford had his hours reduced from 35 per week to 20, slashing his salary by about $20,000 per year.

Ward blamed the reduction on “budgetary constraints,” but McCoy made at least three full-time hires and appointments to other positions in the town after cutting Ford’s hours, according to the complaint.

In December 2010, McCoy created a position, for example, for personal assistant Christopher D. Bandecchi, who earned an annual salary of $48,739.60 — $5,605.60 more per year than Ford earned when he was hired.

Ford said his first performance evaluation on Dec. 10, 2009 rated his work as satisfactory or above in all areas.

On Jan. 6, 2011, Ford “wrote a rebuttal with regards to my performance review,” and was fired by McCoy on July 15, according to his complaint.

He has claimed that the town did not follow progressive disciplinary procedures and terminated him within one year of his ability to vest his pension, “therefore raising an inference of discrimination based on my age,” Ford said.

A younger replacement

A month after Ford was fired, McCoy hired his private law client, Andrew Marchese, to replace him as zoning officer, which Ford cited in his complaints as further evidence of discrimination by the town.

Marchese’s work experience includes nearly 10 years as a state prison guard, and he has owned and operated his own landscaping company since 1993, according to his application.

Despite his lack of experience in zoning enforcement, Marchese was hired to work 20 hours a week at $27.59 plus benefits, $3.89 per hour more than Ford.

McCoy was representing Marchese in a lawsuit against a ladder company at the time of his hire, but it was later dismissed in U.S. District Court after the judge said McCoy neglected statutory filing deadlines.

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