WHEATFIELD – The Wheatfield Town Board has voted to let suspended Recreation Director Edward Sturgeon retire in exchange for dropping disciplinary charges against him.
The deal also calls for Sturgeon to receive all back pay and benefits he lost after being suspended June 10, when a state auditor concluded she couldn’t account for $1,639 that Sturgeon said was collected in cash at the Fairmount Park concession stand since 2009.
Sturgeon never was accused of stealing the money, only of failing to keep track of it properly.
The money was supposed to have been relayed to the town clerk for deposit in a bank, but Sturgeon told the auditor that he couldn’t account for why the bank deposits were less than the amounts his records showed were collected at the stand.
The state audit also criticized the Town Board for inadequate oversight of the concession stand.
After his suspension, missing money was found in a coffee can in Sturgeon’s desk and in an envelope in a refrigerator at the park, according to his attorney, Charles J. Naughton.
Because Sturgeon, with more than nine years as recreation director, had civil service protection, the town had to call a trial-like hearing in order to try to remove him. Hearing sessions were held Nov. 25 and Dec. 17.
The hearing was supposed to have continued last Thursday, but instead, the hearing officer, former North Tonawanda City Judge R. Thomas Burgasser, met with the sides.
“We did have a conference off the record,” Burgasser said. “We discussed various scenarios. … I like to think those discussions bore fruit.” The conference was halted, Sturgeon signed a settlement agreement, and the Town Board approved it at a special meeting Monday.
Sturgeon, 67, will retire by Feb. 1, according to Naughton. The town agreed to keep paying for health insurance for Sturgeon’s wife until she turns 65 in June 2015. Sturgeon will have the option of taking a supplemental Medicare policy for himself through the town; if he wants it, he would have to pay 50 percent of the premium.
Sturgeon will be paid for half the value of his unused sick time, said Town Attorney Robert J. O’Toole, who acted as prosecutor in the hearing. Naughton said Sturgeon also will receive the full value of his unused vacation and personal-leave days.
Sturgeon will receive the full state pension to which his service time entitles him, which Naughton said would be about 20 percent of his final salary of $62,193 a year.
Sturgeon’s salary was stopped only for the first 30 days of his suspension, and then, according to state law, the town had to resume paying him. His deputy, Michael Ranalli, took over the department.
“I don’t think their case was very strong. I don’t think termination was appropriate,” Naughton said. “To the extent there might have been some technical missteps with the handling of money, they didn’t warrant termination.”