If the City of Moab doesn’t pay her nearly $1.94 million – and reimburse her for additional attorney’s fees – former Moab City Manager Rebecca Davidson intends to proceed with a lawsuit against the city and Mayor Dave Sakrison.
In a notice of intent to commence civil action, Davidson alleges that she was wrongfully terminated because she brought concerns about the Moab City Police Department to the attention of Sakrison and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
“In particular, Ms. Davidson is informed and believes that her communication of her concerns about members of the Moab City Police Department was, at a minimum, a motivating factor in the decision to place her on paid administrative leave and then terminate her,” Salt Lake City attorney Gregory W. Stevens wrote.
The claims she is seeking include $825,000 in punitive damages against Sakrison – and, “to the extent allowable,” the city. She’s also asking for $400,000 in damages due to emotional pain, suffering and trauma she claims she has experienced following her dismissal, plus $305,640 in lost salary and benefits, and another $407,520 in other lost wages and benefits.
Davidson, who spoke at length to the Salt Lake City-based City Weekly about her allegations, claims that in August and September of last year, she shared her concerns with the mayor and the FBI.
Among other things, she says she told them that now-former police department employees lied while testifying in court, made threats against citizens, drank alcohol with minors, harassed witnesses and engaged in acts of domestic violence. She also raised “issues” about the police department’s handling of evidence – an allegation that city officials have dismissed outright.
When Davidson shared her concerns with the mayor in “good faith,” Stevens wrote, the city and Sakrison retaliated against her because she “sought to protect the safety of the public.”
Stevens could not be reached for comment, and Interim Moab City Manager David Everitt said that he and other city officials are not at liberty to discuss Davidson’s formal claim.
“Given where we are with litigation, I probably shouldn’t comment on that,” Everitt said.
Stevens submitted the notice of intent on Dec. 13, 2016 – exactly three months to the day after the mayor placed Davidson on paid administrative leave.
The Moab City Council subsequently voted 3-1 last September to terminate her contract “without cause,” or for reasons that are not related to misconduct.
At the time, Sakrison – who had been one of her staunchest defenders at the city – issued a brief statement thanking Davidson for her service and wishing her the best of luck in the future.
“Certainly, I think the idea was, ‘This is the city’s position on it, and we’re ready to move on,’” Everitt said.
Under the terms of the contract that Davidson signed, the city retained the right to terminate her services at any time, and for any reason.
“I think the terms of the agreement are very clear,” Everitt said. “But that doesn’t mean that people can’t file lawsuits.”
By invoking the provisions of the state’s “Whisteblower Act,” Davidson may be able to get around those terms, assuming that a court agrees with her claims.
The city or its insurance carrier have 60 days from the date the claim was filed to notify Davidson of their intentions going forward, according to a legal expert who asked not to be identified. At that point, the claimant may institute an action, and has one year from the date of the original filing to proceed with a lawsuit.
Ex-city manager left city with “golden parachute”
Davidson has already received a substantial “golden parachute” from the city, as outlined under the terms of her contract.
The severance portion of her final check came to $94,188.51, and with accrued leave, she walked away from the job with a total of $107,230.59. According to city records, Davidson cashed the check five days after it was issued.
In the days and weeks after her departure, there was widespread speculation that Davidson’s management style was a factor in the council’s decision, although city officials have said they cannot discuss the matter because they involve personnel-related matters.
The public controversies surrounding her approach to management began with the “restructurings” of now-former Moab City Economic Development Specialist Ken Davey’s and Moab City Community Development Director David Olsen’s positions. They continued with the high-profile resignations of former Public Works Director Jeff Foster, Moab to Monument Valley Film Commission Director Tara Penner and Moab City Police Chief Mike Navarre, creating a sense of what some called a climate of “fear and paranoia” among other city employees.
Of all people, Stevens brought the claims regarding her management style out into the open, although he maintains in his formal notice that those concerns were a pretext for the “true reason” behind her termination.
In her interview with the City Weekly, Davidson said she dug deep into the issues involving the police department, and was concerned about what she found.
“This is a police department in crisis, that’s the concern,” she said, according to the City Weekly. “You can’t play with police departments. You need to take it really serious, how they get hired, how they get trained, and make sure we’re watching.”
In a detailed response to the Moab Sun News, Moab City Police Sgt. Bret Edge said last week that the department made several internal changes that will allow it to reduce the possibility of similar issues appearing in the future.
Everitt said that Davidson is partly to thank for some of those recently enacted reforms, such as efforts to revamp the department’s hiring and selection procedures.
“I want to give credit where credit is due, and it seems like there were a number of positive changes when the former city manager was here,” he said.
But contrary to the City Weekly’s reporting that Davidson alone was responsible for the reforms, Everitt said they were the result of a collaborative effort that involved a number of people and city departments.
“One person can’t just decree it and thus it becomes so,” he said.
Everitt also elaborated on Davidson’s claims regarding the handling of evidence in particular, saying that he has the utmost confidence in the support staff who work for the police department.
“(The employee) got her certification to do this properly. She’s been trained, and she takes it very seriously,” he said. “I feel like the implication that there’s been any sort of issue with how staff has dealt with the (police department’s) vaults and inventory has been misguided.”
Unrelated cases ongoing in district court
The notice of intent is the second major legal action that Davidson has filed in the months since the mayor placed her on leave.
In September 2016, Davidson and two co-plaintiffs filed legal paperwork “demanding” a jury trial to determine “reasonable” punitive and general damages against Grand County Council member Chris Baird, Canyon Country Zephyr Publisher Jim Stiles and three other citizens.
One of the defendants reportedly had to secure a mortgage on her house in order to cover the legal expenses she incurred in the ensuing months.
Seventh District Judge Lyle R. Anderson formally dismissed Davidson’s defamation claims against local residents Janet Buckingham and Annie Tueller Payne, although the related cases involving Baird and others have yet to be resolved. Judge Anderson is scheduled to hear a motion for summary judgment in one of the remaining cases on Tuesday, Feb. 14.
Ex-city manager claims wrongful termination, “whistleblower” status