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City's civil service head quits over start date of recent hires

A highly respected member of Mayor Byron W. Brown's middle-management team quit her $60,888-a-year job after getting into a disagreement with First Deputy Mayor Steven M. Casey over the way the city is handling a group of recent hires.

Olivia A. Licata, a city employee since 1973 and the city's civil service director since 2004, stepped down from her appointed post last week, reverting to a lower-ranking unionized position she previously held in the city's Human Resources office.

Licata declined to comment. Attorney Robert Reden with AFSCME 650 said she quit for "personal reasons."

"She was not going to accept an inaccurate Certificate of Appointment," he said.

As the person responsible for ensuring civil service law is followed in City Hall, Licata was upset that 21 men and women who started working for the city March 19 were given a start date of April 13 on their official city documentation known as a Certificate of Appointment.

Casey described the problem as a paperwork issue. The original paperwork was either not done or missing, and the city Law Department felt amending the document to reflect the actual start date as Licata suggested was improper.

"Somehow the paperwork got screwed up," Casey said. "I don't think anybody was trying to do something inappropriate."

Others said the error could have broad implications because a start date is used to establish such things as seniority and pension eligibility.

That's particularly relevant here because these employees, by starting work on March 19, qualify under the state's Tier 5 pension program.

A starting date of April 13, would push these employees into the state's new Tier 6 pension that took effect April 1. Tier 6 is less costly to the government and more costly to employees.

"The worry is, down the road, someone would say they weren't hired until April 13, so they are in a different tier," Reden said.

That shouldn't be a problem, Casey responded. No one disputes the date these employees actually began work. The discrepancy can be resolved through a union grievance, he said.

>Dispute tied to lockup staff

Licata, 56, is the latest in a string of management-level employees in the Brown administration to step down or be forced out in recent years, and among several who cited an inability to work with Casey.

"There's probably no one in City Hall that knows more about civil service than Olivia Licata," said William C. Travis, the president of the city's blue-collar union, which had gone up against Licata on union issues.

"She is one of the most honorable persons I've worked with in my life," added a former Licata colleague. "She knows civil service law better than anyone. She's outstanding."

The dispute leading to Licata's resignation is related to staff hired for the new police lockup in the basement of Buffalo City Court, 50 Delaware Ave.

A total of 21 cell block attendants and report technicians were hired. They began paid training March 19.

As with all new hires, the department head for these men and women, in this case the police commissioner, was expected to sign Certificates of Appointments to be filed with the City Clerk.

Casey said the documents never were sent to City Hall, probably due to all the scurrying to get ready for the opening of the new facility.

When the new employees' first pay day came in April, the city Comptroller's Office was unable to pay them because they had no Certificates of Appointment, Casey said.

On the advice of Corporation Counsel Timothy A. Ball, Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda was asked, at that point, to submit signed Certificates of Appointments for the 21 employees. The paperwork listed their starting date as April 13. At the same time, the comptroller was authorized by the Law Department to pay the employees the days they actually worked, going back to March 19.

Derenda declined to comment, saying he could not discuss personnel issues.

But in Police Headquarters, the controversy had some shaking their heads in bewilderment. A police officer, who did not want to be quoted because he was not authorized to talk to reporters, said the original documents were signed and delivered to City Hall within days of the new employees being hired on March 19. Some speculated the paperwork may have been brought to Casey's office for review, and that perhaps the deputy mayor's office misplaced the documents.

Regardless of what happened to the first documents, the ones dated April 13 eventually arrived in the Human Resources office, where Licata was charged with maintaining an employee roster.

Licata, according to people familiar with the incident, thought the proper way to handle the situation was to replicate the lost documents containing the proper starting dates -- not to create new ones with improper starting dates.

She asked that the dates on the new documents be amended to reflect the employees' real start date. That date, March 19, was the date already sent to the city payroll office and the state comptroller's pension office.

>Refusal to change dates

Casey, who said he was not aware of any earlier documents, criticized the Human Resources office for moving forward with the hires before the Certificate of Appointment was completed. Casey said he followed Ball's advice and refused to change any dates on the documents.

To back-date this type of document would open a Pandora's box, Casey said.

"If we say that's OK, there's no structure at all in government," Casey said.

"This is a sacred document," Ball said of the Certificate of Appointment. "Olivia said we should amend it. We said no."

Licata resigned her management position not long after that argument and is now working in the unionized civil service position she previously held, personnel specialist, earning about $56,000 annually.

Reden, the union attorney, said a new hire can start work without a Certificate of Appointment, but cannot get paid until one is authorized. It's common, he said, for the police and fire departments to be late with their Certificates of Appointment, and in those cases the city routinely adopts certificates that reflect the actual start date -- not the date the certificate was filed.

Eventually, Casey said, he anticipates a union grievance will be filed to straighten out the discrepancy.

Michael F. Drennen, president of AFSCME 650, which represents the city's white-collar workers, said he has already contacted the State Comptroller's Office, hoping it will look into the matter.

The comptroller's office said the Buffalo employees are currently listed in the Tier 5 pension system, using March 19 start dates. But that is based on a March 30 fax received from the city, prior to the city authorizing the Certificates of Appointments with April 13 start dates.

Any records which claim an April 13 start date would at best be incorrect, and at worst be considered fraudulent, Drennen said.

email: sschulman@buffnews.com and abesecker@buffnews.com