A yearlong controversy that led to embarrassing disclosures about inefficiencies in City Hall finally ended Monday when the mayor fired his human resources commissioner.
Karla L. Thomas was removed from her $91,374-a-year job shortly after former U.S. Attorney Michael Battle, who oversaw a hearing on the matter, issued a report that concluded Mayor Byron W. Brown was justified in firing his onetime political ally.
"Following my review of the voluminous hearing transcripts and Mr. Battle's report and recommendation, I have today terminated Karla Thomas for inadequate performance from the position of commissioner of human resources for the City of Buffalo," Brown said. "The termination of employment takes effect immediately.
Thomas' attorney said his client got the news at about 3 p.m. "Karla is one strong woman," said W. James Schwan. "She's disappointed, but she knew when the mayor told her [in September] before the [termination] hearing that she would be terminated." She could not be reached to comment.
Battle's final report was a 23-page recommendation that criticizes Thomas for ignoring a Brown directive issued a year ago to address deficiencies in her department. One key problem involved the city's payment of health insurance premiums for 170 dead retirees.
Battle presided over a termination hearing that included testimony from Thomas and the mayor. The hearing wrapped up two months ago. While Brown had to make the final decision on whether to fire his onetime ally and close friend, the mayor was waiting for Battle's recommendation before acting.
"I conclude that Ms. Thomas did not adequately perform her duties as commissioner of human resources in that she failed to ensure that all the divisions in her department operated properly or complied with an applicable mayoral directive requiring 'immediate' action," Battle wrote.
Brown served Thomas with her termination papers four months ago, but the City Charter gave her the right to make her case in a public hearing. She has remained on the payroll and has been reporting to work on a regular basis.
Unlike most commissioners who serve at the mayor's pleasure, Buffalo's human resources chief has additional state protection. Because the commissioner also oversees civil service tasks, the position has a six-year term. Thomas' term doesn't expire until September 2014.
But Brown announced plans to fire her in September, claiming his action is justified because she failed to follow his order to take corrective steps. Months earlier, he told the department to acquire data from the Social Security Administration that would help the city identify deceased retirees. A follow-up review by City Comptroller Andrew A. SanFilippo and chief auditor Darryl McPherson in August found that no such action had been taken.
Battle's report concludes that Thomas' inaction constitutes "inadequate performance" that "justifies the mayor in imposing any lawful penalty, up to and including removing Ms. Thomas from her position."
The city Law Department appointed Battle to oversee the hearing. He was paid $425 an hour. Sean P. Beiter, the private attorney who represented the mayor at the hearing, was paid $185 an hour. The city has yet to disclose the cost to taxpayers.
During the hearing, Thomas testified that she had been assured by the city's then-benefits manager that action was being taken to buy a master death index from the Social Security Administration. Thomas also insisted that when she took the job in September 2008, she inherited problems that had plagued city operations through numerous mayoral administrations.
"Systemic inefficiencies over decades is what caused this problem," Thomas said.