2018-05-31 / Front Page

Fired Empire clerk fires back with 10-count lawsuit

By Amy Hubbell
of the Enterprise staff

CRUZ CRUZ Traci Cruz wants her name cleared.

Cruz, who was removed last month as clerk for the Village of Empire, filed a lawsuit Friday in 13th Circuit Court seeking a jury trial and more than $25,000 in damages.

The 25-page filing alleges that council members “engaged in practices of intimidation, badgering, and abuse.”

It also alleges that council members retaliated against her when she questioned whether the proper ordinance was in place allowing the Village Council to issue free beach parking passes to residents of the village as well as Empire Township.

Village President Sam Barr declined comment yesterday other than to say he’d been served with the lawsuit Tuesday afternoon and it has been forwarded to the village’s insurance company.

Cruz also declined comment.

The 10-count complaint paints an ugly picture of council meetings that dissolved into shouting matches before being abruptly called to a close to diffuse the situation.

Specifically cited is the Dec. 14, 2017, meeting in which Barr allegedly lost his cool when Cruz reported that she had asked the auditor to weigh in on the beach parking stickers.

“No, no, no. No one gave you permission to look into this,” Barr said, according to the lawsuit. “You are politicizing your position here which you have no right to do and this causes issues with the township.”

The relationship between Cruz and the Village of Empire has been rocky for some time.

Cruz was hired in November 2016 to replace longtime clerk Pat Zoyhofski.

Board members raised questions about Cruz’s accuracy and completeness in producing financial statements as well as the prompt production of meeting minutes.

Cruz said she was hampered in part by accounting issues that pre-date her employment with the village.

The issue came to a head on Feb. 25 when Barr suspended Cruz, claiming to find “grave many and egregious errors” in the proposed budget. By statute, the budget had to be adopted by March 1.

Cruz was placed by Barr on paid leave until the council took formal action to remove her from office on April 18.

The previous month Council voted to seek a “forensic” review of village financial documents dating back at least two years - before Cruz took over - and longer if necessary.

Cruz said in the lawsuit that allegations of wrong-doing are false and constitute defamation by Council members.

She also claims:

• Breach of contract as her agreement with the Village runs through Aug. 20, 2019.

• Violation of the state Whisteblower Protection Act, citing the parking sticker conflict.

• Violation of the state General Appropriations Act for exceeding budget cost centers without the amending the ordinance.

• Violation of the state law which requires Barr, the “chief administrative officer,” to prepare the recommended annual budget.

Cruz also claims Village Council members conspired with one another to remove her from office.

In addition to the Village of Empire, five of the seven member Council were named individually in the lawsuit. Joining Barr in being sued individually are trustees Dan Davis, Maggie Bacon, Teresa Howes and Sue Carpenter.

To date, the Village of Empire has incurred $11,513 in legal fees as a result of Cruz’s dismissal.

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