A Scott County judge has sided with the city of Davenport in a lawsuit challenging the reinstatement of a former fire chief who has accused the city of firing her over a workplace harassment complaint.
Former Fire Chief Lynn Washburn spent nearly six years at the helm of the department until she was abruptly fired last year by City Administrator Corri Spiegel. As she contested the firing, Washburn brought her case to Davenport’s civil service commission, a panel that reviews public employee complaints.
The commission ordered that Washburn be re-instated as a district chief with the department, a decision the city challenged in Scott County Court.
In his ruling, Scott County District Court Judge Stuart Werling said the commission “lacked jurisdiction to hear her appeal and was without authority” in its action. He also said the arguments presented on Washburn’s behalf regarding civil service “may be well-founded,” but would rely on the Iowa Legislature to change state law.
Mike Carroll, the ex-chief’s attorney, said they plan to file an appeal, saying that outcome was likely “no matter which side won at this level.”
“We’re disappointed of course, but she’s unbowed,” Carroll said of Washburn. He added that the former chief plans to file an additional complaint against the city alleging employment discrimination.
In court, arguments have largely revolved around conflicting interpretations of an Iowa law about how civil service status works.
Under state law, police officers and firefighters hired by municipalities follow a specific process of promotion hiring, which is overseen by a local civil service commission. For fire chiefs, the law says they should be returned to a position corresponding to the civil service status they held before being taking the top job.
At issue is whether Washburn is entitled to go through the appeals process outlined for civil service employees.
For her part, Washburn has argued that her 30 years with the Rockford, Illinois, fire department should give her civil service status in Davenport. On the other hand, lawyers hired by the city say the state law applies only to those who are promoted from within the department’s ranks.
Over the yearlong dispute, two narratives have emerged to explain why Washburn was fired in the first place.
City officials say Washburn’s tenure was “plagued by her bad decisions and poor judgment,” saying she overspent on office furnishings, took too much time away from work, caused issues with the employee union and disobeyed orders from her boss. She was fired after she failed to show up for a hearing with Speigel about her job, according to the account from officials.
Meanwhile, Washburn alleges city officials attempted to force her resignation and later retaliated against her for complaining about workplace harassment. She also says she was bullied and discriminated against based on her age and sex, a claims that have yet to be tested in court.
In 2017, Washburn also filed a sexual harassment complaint against the city over a package she received at her work desk that contained what she described as “pornographic items.” The city has said there was never any evidence found to support her conclusion that the anonymously-mailed package came from a fellow city employee.
Separately, Washburn was named in July as one of two finalists for a fire chief job in Ames, Iowa, a position for which she was not selected. Her lawyer has said Washburn continues to look for work to offset her loss of employment with the city.