September 18, 2003


Judge orders Village to hear appeal of fired police officer

A Greene County judge has ordered Village Council to arrange a hearing for former police officer Matt Williams to appeal his dismissal from the Yellow Springs Police Department.

In his ruling, which was submitted Sept. 5, Judge Stephen A. Wolaver of the Greene County Common Pleas Court agreed with Williams, saying that the Village must provide employees “a process for appeal of disciplinary action having adverse economic effect” on the staff members. While the Village has a process to determine disciplinary action — called a pre-disciplinary hearing — it does not provide its staff a means to appeal certain decisions, through personnel policy manual, Judge Wolaver found.

Calling the manual incomplete, Judge Wolaver sent Williams’s appeal back to the Village, ordering the Village to follow a procedure outlined in the Village Charter that provides an appeals process for employees. Under that process, Council must appoint a three-person board to consider the merits of the Village’s decision to fire Williams, whose employment with the Village was officially terminated on Jan. 2, 2003.

Village Manager Rob Hillard declined to comment on the judge’s decision, though he did say that the Village would follow the requirements of the Charter.

Jeffrey Shulman, one of the attorneys representing Williams, also declined to comment on Judge Wolaver’s decision.

At its meeting Monday, Village Council, which discussed the case in executive session, agreed to appoint a panel of three residents to consider Williams’s appeal. The residents are Len Kramer, a member of the Village Mediation Program Steering Committee; Barbara Boettcher, an attorney who is serving on the Village Police Chief Search Committee; and Kent Bristol, a former Village Manager who is now the director of the Miami Valley Communications Council. The panel will set a date to consider Williams’s appeal.

After the meeting, Council president Tony Arnett said that the three members of the board possess a “good set of skills for the task.” He declined to comment on Judge Wolaver’s decision.

Williams was hired as a part-time officer in May 1998 and moved up to full-time a year later.

He was fired after an internal investigation by former Police Chief Jim Miller and a pre-disciplinary hearing found that Williams filed a false report about and misused his power during a traffic stop in the early morning hours of Feb. 14, 2002. Miller, who has since retired, said that Williams made the stop without probable cause and was “not truthful” about the incident.

Williams denies the allegations. He filed an appeal with the Common Pleas Court on Jan. 30, 2003, arguing that the Village violated his right to due process under the Ohio Constitution by not providing him with a post-termination hearing and a mechanism through which he could appeal and challenge his dismissal. His complaint asked the court to reinstate him on the police force and award him attorney’s fees and punitive damages.

Shulman said that he is “very confident” that the allegations against Williams “are not true,” and that the actions his client is alleged to have committed did not warrant the decision to fire Williams “nine or 10 months later.”

The Village had argued that the pre-disciplinary hearing, which took place on Dec. 6, 2002, was all the due process Williams was entitled to, and that the venue to appeal the decision was the Common Pleas Court.

The judge determined that the Village did not follow the Village Charter, which, Judge Wolaver noted, “clearly identified and established the right of an employee who had been discharged for cause to appeal that decision.”

The Village erred in writing the personnel policy manual, which was adopted in January 2001, because it did not follow this mandate, Judge Wolaver said.

He did not address, however, the larger issue in the case: whether the Village correctly dismissed Williams, or whether Williams was truthful about the incident on Feb. 14, 2002, and that he should not have been fired.

—Robert Mihalek