SARATOGA COUNTY – Former Saratoga County administrator Spencer Hellwig was terminated in January for political reasons, without just cause, he alleges in a new lawsuit.
Hellwig, a 32-year county employee who had been county administrator — the county’s top day-to-day leadership position — for nearly a decade prior to Jan. 6, when the the county Board of Supervisors in a deeply split vote decided to appoint Steven J. Bulger to the administrator’s post.
Hellwig had been criticized for his role in a rapid series of shifts in county policy concerning time-and-a-half pandemic pay in March 2020, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. But in the lawsuit, Hellwig contends that the criticisms were only a pretext for a group of supervisors who represent large-population towns to seek his removal from the $162,000-salary job.
“When the decision was met with public disapproval, Respondents used Petitioner (Hellwig) as a scapegoat for their pay decision,” the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit, filed Thursday in the Saratoga County clerk’s office in Ballston Spa, names Saratoga County and the Board of Supervisors as defendants, though a large number of supervisors — those representing smaller towns with less power than the big towns — continued to support Hellwig throughout last year.
“Respondents improperly used the events surrounding the time-and-a-half pay decision as a pretext to accomplish the unwarranted and political goals of certain individuals on the BOS,” states the lawsuit. “Petitioners termination was made in violation of lawful procedure, was arbitrary and capricious, and was an abuse of discretion.”
The lawsuit seeks reinstatement with back pay and interest, restoration of lost benefits and seniority, and reimbursement of legal costs.
The lawsuit was filed on Hellwig’s behalf by Hinckley, Allen & Snyder of Albany, a law firm Hellwig hired last year to represent him in any potential disciplinary proceedings to arise from the pay dispute.
County officials have refused to comment on Hellwig’s legal claims or provide any reason why he was replaced, apparently standing by the principle that the county administrator serves at the pleasure of the Board of Supervisors.
During the time-and-a-half pay controversy, the Board of Supervisors’ Law and Finance Committee agreed in mid-March 2020 to authorize additional pay for county employees who continued to report to work physically, as the seriousness of the pandemic nationally was first becoming clear. The measure was going to cost the county $325,000 per week in additional compensation, and public criticism led the supervisors to reverse their position within days, upsetting much of the county workforce.
Hellwig maintains those decisions were made by the Board of Supervisors — not himself — though there were times when the supervisors didn’t follow standard deliberation procedures. Some supervisors said the decision was made at his recommendation.
At around the same time, the lawsuit said, the large-town supervisors organized themselves as the Northway Corridor Public Health Task Force and began working against him. The group included the two supervisors from Saratoga Springs and Clifton Park, and the supervisors of Ballston, Moreau, Malta, Wilton and Halfmoon, who based on their population-weighted votes have the power to outvote the other 14 members of the board.
“Respondents, controlled by individual supervisors in the Northway Corridor Group, began a campaign against (Hellwig) designed at tarnishing his reputation, which included disseminating false information about Petitioner’s role and actions in connection with the overtime pay decision,” the lawsuit states.
A report commissioned by supervisors from an outside law firm found no intentional wrong-doing during the pandemic pay controversy. But after that report was received, Northway Corridor Task Force member Todd Kusnierz, R-Moreau, introduced a resolution at a county board meeting on Aug. 18, to have Hellwig terminated, effective immediately.
The introduction of that resolution prompted a sometimes-bitter three-hour debate that ultimately led to withdrawal of Kusnierz’ resolution and a decision to form a special committee to review the law firm’s report and consider the possibility of discipline against Hellwig.
According to the lawsuit, the special committee didn’t notify Hellwig of a conclusion until mid-December. Hellwig and his attorney attended a meeting with committee chair Eric Connolly, R-Ballston, and a county labor attorney on Dec. 23, at which Hellwig was told he faced discipline and needed to improve his crisis leadership, communications and problem-solving abilities. The lawsuit argues that none of those issues, even if true, are firing offenses.
Hellwig said the only notice he ever received of his termination was the resolution on Jan. 6 that appointed Bulger, a Clifton Park resident who had held a variety of political jobs, most recently as a regional Small Business Administration leader during the Trump administration, as the new county administrator.
Hellwig said he filed retirement paperwork the next day, in order to preserve his pension and other benefits. But in the lawsuit, he seeks his job back.
The case will be heard in state Supreme Court in Ballston Spa.