Council denies Ponek claim

A claim against the city of Ridgecrest by former Parks and Recreation Director Jim Ponek has been denied by the Ridgecrest City Council, which heard the item in the closed-session portion of its Nov. 20 meeting.

Ponek submitted his letter of resignation to City Manager Dennis Speer July 21. In his letter he said that he would be departing as of Sept. 3, though he ended up leaving the city in early August.

“While I had a great and satisfying experience with the city, I am leaving under duress due to the city of Ridgecrest’s unfortunate budget situation,” wrote Ponek.

“It is a known fact that the city’s budgetary shortfalls are not over and it is just a matter of time before the city of Ridgecrest eliminates the Director of Parks and Recreation position.”

He went on to state that he was leaving Ridgecrest to accept another position.

“However, I believe this is a win-win situation for the city of Ridgecrest and me. Therefore I am requesting that you consider any separation compensation that I might be entitled to under the terms of my employment agreement, including compensation equal to my six months’ severance.”

Speer noted that Ponek did not qualify for severance, since he left the city of his own accord.

During last two cycles of budget talks, the council did consider reducing Ponek’s director position, which paid approximately $130,000 annually, to a recreation supervisor in order to accommodate drastic revenue losses over the last several years.

Although the council ultimately chose not to reduce the position, when Speer hired former City Councilman Jason Patin as Ponek’s interim replacement, he did so at less than half the salary.

When Ponek made his claim, which is dated Oct. 15, he stated that council members and the city manager “created a hostile work environment which caused me to seek gainful employment elsewhere. Statement of a councilmember and actions of council after my departure is evidence of the work environment created. This action violated my employment agreement with the city, and therefore I am entitled to my severance package.”

His claim asks for $65,000 from the city.

Although Ponek’s management of his departmental resources was scrutinized during budget talks, it is unclear whether that fits the legal definition of a hostile work environment — which is limited to acts of violence, abuse or discrimination in the workplace. City Attorney Keith Lemieux said he recommended that the claim be denied since Ponek did not cite any evidence of a violation.

Story First Published: 2013-12-04