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Commissioner remains on city's payroll ; Lengthy hearing, transcript review process enable Thomas to continue collecting salary

Nearly four months after Mayor Byron W. Brown announced plans to fire his human resources commissioner, Karla L. Thomas remains on the city's payroll.

How has Thomas managed to keep earning her $1,764 weekly salary even though the mayor served her with termination papers on Sept. 2?

The commissioner has made use of a Charter-mandated provision that gave her the right to defend her tenure in a public proceeding. A hearing that began in late September dragged on through Nov. 9. There was far more testimony at the unusual hearing than some officials had anticipated, and the lag was exacerbated by schedule conflicts involving attorneys who took part in the proceeding.

The first signal that Thomas might end up on the payroll beyond the start of the new year came moments after her termination hearing wrapped up. David Abrams, a law clerk for hearing officer Michael A. Battle, told a reporter that the review process could spill into January.

It took time to prepare and distribute hearing transcripts, attorneys said. Battle then gave both sides time to review the transcripts and prepare written arguments.

Thomas' attorney told The Buffalo News last week that final documents were recently submitted to the hearing officer.

"Now we're waiting for [Battle's] recommendation," said W. James Schwan, a prominent labor lawyer whose clients include the city's police union.

Brown confirmed that his administration had received hearing transcripts and was awaiting a report from Battle. It will be up to Brown to decide whether he should follow through with plans to fire Thomas. During the hearing, Brown didn't back away from his original intention.

"I believe termination is warranted, but I will look at all the testimony and the evidence," Brown said.

Thomas' troubles began nearly a year ago when city Comptroller Andrew A. SanFilippo released a critical audit of her department. The scathing report disclosed, among other problems, that the city was paying health insurance premiums to dead retirees.

The mayor ordered Thomas to take numerous steps to fix problems. A follow-up review in August concluded that no corrective action had been taken and that the city had been paying premiums for 170 dead retirees.

Thomas insisted during the hearing that she had been assured by the then-benefits manager that action was being taken to buy a master death index from the Social Security Administration. The commissioner argued that when she took the job in September 2008, she inherited problems that stretched back through numerous mayoral administrations.

"Systemic inefficiencies over decades is what caused this problem," Thomas said.

Other city commissioners serve at the pleasure of the mayor. But the human resources commissioner has added protection. State law attempts to insulate personnel directors from politics by giving them a six-year term. Thomas still has three years and eight months remaining. If she is ousted, she could opt to sue the city for more than $335,000 in salary that she would have received had she fulfilled her full term.

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com

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