County merit board upholds Oneonta dismissal of Wall

Geneva Wall views material with her attorney John Saxon before the Blount County Merit Board, last week. Court reporter Tollie Dickie (left) records proceedings in front of board members (left to right): Bob Sanford, Gary McGill, Bob Newman, Tim Frye, and Brett King.

Geneva Wall views material with her attorney John Saxon before the Blount County Merit Board, last week. Court reporter Tollie Dickie (left) records proceedings in front of board members (left to right): Bob Sanford, Gary McGill, Bob Newman, Tim Frye, and Brett King.

Concluding eight months of hearings and appeals, the Blount County Merit Board unanimously upheld Oneonta’s dismissal of city employee Geneva Wall. Wall could appeal the Aug. 30 board decision to Circuit or even to Federal Court. Attorney closings

Attorneys Alex Smith and John Saxon ended the three-and-a-half-hour hearing by summarizing each position. Speaking for the city, Smith contended that Wall’s dismissal resulted from the expenditure of public funds without authorization. Saxon, representing Wall, argued that Wall’s dismissal came in retaliation to her filing of ethics charges against city officials.

In his first closing, Smith repeated the city’s position, previously rejected by the board, that Wall was not a merit employee. In light of that position, he asserted Wall had received proper due process.

Saxon contended that the city’s refusal to reschedule Wall’s initial dismissal appeal hearing to permit his attendance denied her due process right-to-counsel. He also held that the fact the mayor and one councilor, who were two of the four subjects in Wall’s ethics filings, voted to uphold the dismissal on appeal, entailed questionable conflicts of interest. Background

Oneonta Mayor Ross Norris had dismissed Wall in December 2015. She appealed that action to the board.

Smith laid out the city’s position in two poster timelines, beginning Sept. 1, 2014. On that date, Smith revealed the city missed a bond payment with Mellon Bank, an occurrence repeated the same date in 2015. His timeline shows Norris and city administrator Ed Lowe counseled Wall about the missed payments after the first event. Direct evidence and testimony

Of those events, Wall testified that while she had a schedule for the bond payments, payments went to different bond holders and that she needed invoices detailing where payments were to go before making them. She said she had had no invoices for the two missed payments, prior to the delinquent notification. She also denied having received the alleged 2014 counseling.

Smith’s second board exhibit began with Aug. 20, 2015, and Wall’s alleged failure to make a payroll tax payment to the IRS on that date. The city says Wall made that payment along with a $2,039.02 late-payment penalty on Nov. 10, without advising the mayor. The exhibit detailed Wall attended a meeting on Nov. 25, where she acknowledged the above actions and failure to inform Norris of the events. She was then terminated on Dec. 7.

Wall held that in a 2013 similar failed payment, Norris contacted the IRS and asked that Wall be granted authority to “handle” these matters. In the 2013 incident, the IRS removed the penalty, upon her request. She also asserted that in 2013 she had entered the proper payment information to the third-party ETF (electronic funds transfer) service, but the payment failed. She had saved a screen shot of that entry to verify that attempt. She alleged in 2015 she had again entered the material, thought it had been submitted, but had not made a screen shot.

The city offered testimony from Wade Morgan, a forensic computer examiner, asserting that no such action had occurred on Wall’s city hall desktop computer. Under questioning, Wall said she might have used another computer at city hall, as she on rare occasions did, but believed, as she had testified, that she had used her own computer.

Smith produced the IRS form Norris signed to grant permission for Wall to receive and respond to IRS inquiries. He showed her that the form, which included several pages, had a place for Norris to authorize her action without his notification and that that space had not been “checked.” Wall claimed she had never seen that page.

Wall said that she was party to the telephone conversation involving Norris and the IRS and understood his alleged statement of letting “her handle it” as giving her permission to resolve disputes. She said that she had not contacted Norris, since he, too, received the same correspondence from IRS that she did.

In his arguments, Saxon alleged another 2007 payroll tax payment failure, for which no dismissal had occurred. He noted that now city clerk Tammie Noland, sister to Lowe, was in charge of payment at that time. He said no one was fired following that incident.

Called for testimony, Noland said she did not recall the 2007 or 2013 events. She explained that in 2007, then city clerk Martha Walker, who was suffering serious health problems, missed time at work and that things were disrupted during that period. She also testified that in the past, some bond payments had been made without invoices.

Saxon’s closing points were that the difference between 2007, 2013, and 2015 was that in May of 2015 Wall had filed alleged ethics violations against four city officials. He asserted she was dismissed because of that, not because of the city’s stated reason.

In his final statement to the board, Smith said the difference in the 2015 payment failure was that Wall had spent public funds without permission and without having notified the mayor.