Saratoga County

Saratoga County formally served with federal lawsuit by former administrator alleging unlawful termination

Then-Saratoga County Administrator Spencer Hellwig speaks during a press conference at Saratoga County Board of Supervisors regarding County COVID-19 information after declaring State of Emergency, in Ballston Spa on Tuesday, March 17, 2020.
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Then-Saratoga County Administrator Spencer Hellwig speaks during a press conference at Saratoga County Board of Supervisors regarding County COVID-19 information after declaring State of Emergency, in Ballston Spa on Tuesday, March 17, 2020.

Former Saratoga County Administrator Spencer Hellwig has filed a federal lawsuit against the county that alleges his firing in January 2021 was a result of unlawful retaliation. The complaint alleges the county – in an effort led by Chairman of the Saratoga County Board of Supervisors Theodore T. Kusnierz, Jr. – removed Hellwig from a position he’d held for about a decade because Hellwig supported the county’s former Human Resources director in a gender discrimination complaint against Kusnierz.

Hellwig’s federal lawsuit was filed May 11 in U.S. District Court in the Northern District of New York and was formally submitted to the county on Thursday. The complaint follows the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s February decision to dismiss a charge of discrimination that Hellwig filed with the EEOC last November. Hellwig’s federal lawsuit, which names Kusnierz as a defendant in addition to the county and the county’s Board of Supervisors, demands a jury trial and seeks reinstatement, compensatory damages, punitive damages, back pay, interest, costs and attorneys’ fees.

“The county was formally served with the complaint on May 19,” said Christine Rush, Saratoga County’s spokesperson. “Just as with the previously dismissed Article 78 complaint, we will continue to vigorously defend the interests of the taxpayers of Saratoga County. As this is pending litigation, we will offer no further comment.”

The county administrator is the county’s top day-to-day leadership position. Hellwig, who began working for the county in 1988, served as the county administrator from December 2010 until his termination in January 2021. He earned a base salary of $156,064.09.

The controversy dates to at least March 2020, when the Board of Supervisors’ Law and Finance Committee agreed 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 had been criticized for his role in advancing the notion of time-and-a-half pandemic pay.

Around the time of those pay discussions, Margaret McNamara, the former Human Resources director for the county who reported to Hellwig, had conversations with Hellwig regarding Kusnierz’s alleged discriminatory treatment toward her.

“For example, after a March 27, 2020, Board Meeting, Kusnierz told Mr. Hellwig, in sum and substance, that McNamara had better apologize to Kusnierz, or he would not stop harassing her,” the federal lawsuit states.

Hellwig encouraged McNamara to file an internal complaint with the county, according to Hellwig’s federal lawsuit. McNamara’s April 2020 internal complaint alleged gender discrimination by Kusnierz and alleged he displayed a hostile attitude toward McNamara, including by calling her “madame” in derogatory tones and threatening her job, Hellwig’s lawsuit states.

The complaint also alleged Kusnierz improperly criticized McNamara for receiving additional compensation during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which, the lawsuit says, McNamara did not receive.

The county hired the law firm Bond, Schoeneck and King, as well as a second firm, E. Stewart Jones Hacker Murphy, LLP, to investigate McNamara’s complaints and the circumstances surrounding the adoption and execution of special rates of compensation for physically present workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the lawsuit.

Of note, Bond, Schoeneck and King is the same firm hired in a split decision this week by the Town of Clifton Park to conduct an investigation into alleged toxicity inside Town Hall under the leadership of Supervisor Phil Barrett.

As the Saratoga County Board of Supervisors convened an External Report Review Committee to consider the findings of the 2020 external investigations and determine a course of action, Kusnierz became retaliatory, and publicly discussed replacing McNamara, according to the lawsuit. Kusnierz also hired his own private counsel and wanted the county to pay for his legal fees, but Hellwig refused to authorize the payments, according to the lawsuit.

Kusnierz displayed hostility and aggression through the summer of 2020, initially beginning attempts to remove Hellwig from office in August of 2020, the lawsuit says.

Kusnierz, “prior to engineering Mr. Hellwig’s unlawful termination, stated his intention to ‘go after’ Mr. Hellwig because he supported McNamara,” the suit alleges.

Hellwig was eventually discharged in January 2021, a few days after Kusnierz was sworn in as county supervisor.

Kusnierz became Supervisor for the Town of Moreau in 2018 and was sworn in as the chairman of the Saratoga County Board of Supervisors on Jan. 6, 2021.

McNamara was terminated in June 2021. McNamara filed her own federal wrongful termination lawsuit against the county in March of 2022.

McNamara’s attorney, Nancy S. Williamson, did not return a request seeking comment.

Hellwig’s attorney, Benjamin W. Hill, also did not return a request for comment.

Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.

Categories: News, Saratoga County

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