It turns out that former Erie County Legislator Gregory B. Olma wasn’t given a $68,000-a-year job in the county Parks Department because of his knowledge of beaches and bike paths or, necessarily, even as a political patronage payoff.
Instead, Olma was named deputy parks chief this week to settle a wrongful-termination lawsuit he filed after being ousted from his job as a grants administrator in 2008 by then-County Executive Chris Collins.
The settlement stipulates that Olma – who served four terms in the Legislature and also remains active in Democratic Party politics – be given $10,000 plus a county job in exchange for dropping the suit.
The lawsuit, which contends that Olma was the target of political retribution when his job was eliminated under the Collins administration, had been winding its way through the courts since it was filed in 2011.
County lawmakers do not have to approve the settlement and had not been told of it by the Poloncarz administration. When Legislature leaders were informed of it by The Buffalo News on Thursday, reaction predictably fell along party lines.
“That stinks,” said Legislature Chairman John J. Mills, R-Orchard Park. “I’ve never heard anything like that. That’s insane.”
Majority Leader Joseph C. Lorigo, C-West Seneca, said the agreement “reeks of politics” and accused County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz of trying to unite factions of the Democratic Party ahead of his expected 2015 re-election bid.
But Minority Leader Betty Jean Grant, D-Buffalo, said that such settlements are not unusual. Although she said she had not been aware of a deal, or even that Olma had filed suit, Grant was not surprised that an employment-discrimination case could result in the plaintiff negotiating for the return of a job.
“I know that negotiating for a job as part of a settlement is not unheard of,” Grant said.
A Poloncarz spokesman confirmed this week that Olma is slated to begin work Tuesday as the county’s deputy commissioner of parks and recreaction. The county’s rationale for signing off on the agreement was to “avoid the uncertainty of litigation,” said County Attorney Michael A. Siragusa.
“We actually think we had a good chance of winning, but the main focal point of the settlement is it’s going to be expensive to get through trial. It’s never a 100 percent guarantee you’re going to win,” Siragusa said.
“It would have cost us far in excess of $10,000 if we had to go through the remainder of the discovery, the depositions and then trial.”
Olma’s attorney, James Ostrowski, said the aim of the lawsuit was to get Olma his job back, even though the position – grants administrator – had been cut from the county budget in 2008.
“It was eliminated from the budget by the prior administration, and our allegation was that it was politically motivated,” Ostrowski said Thursday.
The lawsuit alleged that Olma was fired because of his political affiliation and because he supported Collins’ Democratic rival, James P. Keane, in the 2007 campaign for county executive.
It was not the first lawsuit that Olma, who served four terms in the Legislature ending in 2000, has filed against the county. He previously sued both the county and the City of Buffalo after he was arrested in 2000, following allegations by two election inspectors that he had made sexual and racial slurs, an accusation he vehemently denied. The county and the city settled with Olma for $25,000 and $15,000, respectively.
Back in 2003, Olma’s wife, Annette A. Juncewicz, settled a lawsuit with the Erie County Water Authority, after she alleged that she was wrongfully terminated in 2001 The sum of the settlement was never publicly disclosed.
Olma’s 2011 lawsuit was initially filed against Collins and two other members of his administration. Siragusa inherited the case when Poloncarz took office in 2012, by which time, he said, the handling of the lawsuit had been outsourced to a private law firm.
Alisa A. Lukasiewicz, special counsel with Phillips Lytle, negotiated the settlement with Olma and his lawyer, Ostrowski. The settlement was reached Aug. 20 and filed in federal court last Friday.
“When people sue in employment-discrimination cases, one of the remedies is reinstatement. That’s always out there,” Siragusa said.
However, Olma’s old job as a grants administrator no longer exists, so he was offered a different, nonmanagement/confidential position in county government.
“That was one of the difficulties with this case. That job was long gone,” Siragusa said. Had the case gone to trial and Olma won, the likely remedy would have been to pay him back wages, “which would have been exorbitant, with interest,” Siragusa added.
Olma’s new job pays $68,167 a year. When he was let go in 2008, he was a grants administrator in the Department of Emergency Services, a position that had a base salary of $58,573.
Republican lawmakers questioned his qualifications for the new post and accused Poloncarz of making a political appointment.
“Greg Olma is a different faction of Democratic politics,” Lorigo said. “Mark Poloncarz has an election coming up next year, and he is, in my opinion, trying to get all of his ducks in a row to create political allies.”
But a Poloncarz spokesman, Peter Anderson, dismissed the criticism.
“Mr. Olma is qualified for the job. He spent years as the chairman of the Energy and Environment Committee of the Legislature, and he’s aware of the needs of the parks department and will work on them,” Anderson said.
“Also, it is somewhat hypocritical of the son of Conservative Party Chairman Ralph Lorigo to complain about political appointees when he, himself, as a majority leader, has put political appointees at the Legislature.”