Former employee sues Winnebago County Animal Services

In our last article [Jan. 12-18, 2005], we heard from Becky Maier, a former Winnebago County Animal Services (WCAS) employee. But she’s not the only employee who has had trouble with the WCAS administration.

Tom Flaningam is suing the agency for $500,000 in federal court. Defendants in the suit are: County of Winnebago; Jim Kelly (director of the County’s Human Resources Department); and Michelle Sell (a former interim director of WCAS). WCAS Director Gary Longanecker, whose name is misspelled “Lonnenecker,” is mentioned in the body of the complaint under “Patronage Practices.”

Flaningam worked as a seasonal officer for 13 years. In his 14th year, he was promoted to officer supervisor, then fired April 26, 2002. This was not long after Kelly became Human Resources director for the County. Flaningam had been an officer since 1988 with an exemplary record. When Flaningam was fired, his pay was $14.20 an hour. When Longanecker took the job Flaningam had held on Monday, his starting pay was $17.885 an hour. According to Flaningam, four months later, Longanecker told Winnebago County State’s Attorney Paul Logli he was not getting along with Michelle Sell, who had been acting director, and she was fired. Longanecker then became the interim director.

The complaint states: “Flaningam seeks damages arising from his unlawful termination from the Winnebago County Animal Services Department.” Flaningam alleges he was illegally fired because although the reason given was “work performance,” there are no records of any complaints, warnings, reprimands or anything that would suggest his work was unsatisfactory. He alleges his personal file, which he finally managed to obtain, is clear of any charge of wrongdoing.

The complaint also states: “In approximately January of 2002, Michelle Sell became Animal Services Director and within four months, she terminated, without cause, Plaintiff’s employment. Upon information and belief, Defendant [Jim] Kelly participated with Defendant Sell in making this decision. Plaintiff was immediately replaced with Gary Lonnenecker [sic], a man with no experience in Animal Services.” Also, “The decision to terminate Plaintiff was not based upon any legitimate workplace or performance issue, but was based upon political favoritism and affiliation. Moreover, Plaintiff was not afforded notice of his termination, was not afforded a hearing, and was not afforded any due process of law with respect to his termination.”

As for that “due process,” Flaningam notes that Gary Kovanda, one of the assistant state’s attorneys, was promoted in September 2004. He had until the end of September to file a motion against Flaningam, and he went to the judge in federal court. Kovanda inquired whether he could have more time because of his promotion, and the judge granted his request. With some frustration, Flaningam said: “When I got hold of Deirdre [Baumann, his attorney], I wondered how much more time he’d get. He had until Sept. 20 to file a motion… I haven’t heard from Deirdre yet. She knows I have a good, solid case. I was let go illegally without just cause,” he alleged.

“In Longanecker’s deposition,” Flaningam asserts, “my attorney asked him, ‘Before you were hired, did you have any animal control experience?’ He said ‘no.’ Then she asked him, ‘Did they send you to any animal control school or anything [to do] with animal knowledge?’ He said ‘no.’ He was hired with no experience, and that’s why we’re trying to fight [on] the issue that he was politically affiliated with [Winnebago County Sheriff] Dick Meyers and [Winnebago County State’s Attorney] Paul Logli. When he was asked on the deposition, ‘Are you friends with Paul Logli?’, he said ‘yes.’”

Recalling the day he was fired, Flaningam said: “I was let go on a Friday. I was making $14.20 an hour, and Gary Longanecker moved in Monday, making close to $18 an hour. He got a county car with police lights on it, and he still drives it around. It was a political appointment.”

Sheila Vayenas of Adopt Shelter Animals Please (ASAP) confirmed that Longanecker is the only director who has been given a car. “No one else who worked there has ever been given a new car,” she said.

As for his record, he said, “My personal file is completely clean. I have never been suspended or written up, never had problems as far as sitting down and having conversations with verbal complaints. When they fired me, there was nothing there for me to sign. I wouldn’t have signed anything anyway.

“Also, in this deposition, there were two questions asked Jim Kelly as far as, was there anybody else who filled out an application besides Gary Longanecker? Kelly said yes—two other people. Deirdre [Baumann] asked who they were. Kelly said he didn’t know. But those applications have to be on file.”

Letters sent to Logli, Meyers, Kelly

The Rock River Times sent letters of inquiry to State’s Attorney Paul Logli, Sheriff Richard Meyers, and Human Resources Director Jim Kelly.

Logli and Meyers were asked if they had any previous association with Longanecker, either political or friendship. Logli was also asked why Longanecker, who had no experience in the field, was hired at a higher rate of pay than Flaningam, with his 14 years of experience. Kelly was asked the same question, as well as about other possible applicants for the director’s position. He was also asked why Flaningam was fired after 14 years of experience and a recent promotion. Meyers was asked if he had ever been on vacation with Longanecker.

Several phone calls were made asking for replies. Logli’s secretary said he did not wish to comment at this time. Meyers did not return any calls. Kelly responded that he was advised by Logli not to comment on the case.

Letters of recommendation

Flaningam has letters of another sort in his possession—letters of appreciation from people he has dealt with in the past. A letter dated July 2, 1990, was sent to former director Gina Tulley. It said: “I would like to thank the Animal Control Department and one of your officers, Tom Flanigam, for such fine work in the field of picking up stray animals. On Sunday, 7/1/90, I placed a call in with the Public Safety Building about two dogs which were dumped off in our area… Mr. Flaningam was kind enough to call us and explain the situation that it would be late to pick up the dogs. I told him no problem and waited for him. (Meanwhile, we made phone calls and tried to find the owners in case they had taken off or broke the chain.)… Tom Flaningam is an excellent person, kind, caring and courteous. I hope that Animal Control realizes this. Again, we thank you, Tom Flaningam. Keep up the excellent work!!!” It was signed by Catherine Ekedahl, Rockford.

On April 5, 2001, Lisa R. Lewis sent a letter to the Winnebago County Auditor’s office addressed “To Whom It May Concern: I have known Tom Flaningam for nine years and he has been a good friend…. an employee of the Winnebago County Animal Services for 13 years. He has always worked hard to be a good animal service officer, and he really cares about his job. He doesn’t just come in to work to earn a paycheck. He cares about the animals and the people of this community. He does his best to see that the right thing is always done. Tom has shown me over these last nine years that there are still honest, responsible, and hard-working people out there.

“I believe that Tom would be a great selection for the position of Animal Services Supervisor. Tom has what it takes to be a terrific supervisor. He has a great personality and gets along with others very easily. He would be able to communicate with employees and all outside agencies with no problem and always maintain a professional manner. I sincerely feel that Tom would be an asset to the position of Animal Services Supervisor.”

On April 12, 2001, Douglas Passmore, City of Rockford 911 telecommunicator, sent a letter “To Whom It May Concern” at Animal Services: “I have known Tom Flaningam for about 13 years while he has been employed with Animal Services. Through

out the time he has been very helpful in assisting others and me at the 911 Center with animal-related calls. On several occasions when we have not been able to contact the on-call person, I have called Tom late at night to get his advice. He is always willing to help either by finding someone to assist me or by taking care of the job himself. Knowledgeable and committed to his job, Tom would bring the same dedication to a supervisory position.”

On April 13, 2001, Tom Guthrie, a firefighter from DeKalb, sent a letter to WCAS. It said: “I am writing this letter to give you my recommendation of Tom Flaningam for the position of Warden Supervisor. I have known Tom for over 14 years. He is a hard-working and dependable individual… a trustworthy, honest, and conscientious person. He has been an employee with the Animal Services Division… These years of service signify Tom’s strong desire to work in the field of animal services… Tom’s strong work ethic and caring nature will make him an excellent candidate for the position of Warden Supervisor.”

Flaningam applies again

The week of Jan. 16, 2005, Flaningam received a phone call that Animal Services was hiring a kennel technician. He decided to go in and apply for the position. He recounted what happened when he went to apply, Jan. 26: “I walked in there, sat down and asked the lady [at the desk], ‘Can I have an application?’ She said, ‘Sure. What would you like one for?’ I said, ‘Animal Services kennel technician.’ Then I asked, ‘Is there any way I can get a copy of it?’ She said I could. Then as I was filling it out, who walks in but Jim Kelly. He didn’t say anything to me but went back to the office. When [the application] got to the point where it says, ‘Have you worked for Animal Services before? How many years?’ I put ‘1998-2002.’ Under ‘Reason for leaving,’ I put ‘Jim Kelly said “job performance.”’ I filled it out, signed and dated it and took it out there [to the desk]. Then I asked for a copy for my personal file. Now the receptionist said, ‘We can’t do that’—after she had told me I could have a copy.”

Flaningam wonders what happened after Kelly came in and why the receptionist, at first agreeable to furnishing him a copy of the application, now refused. He does not think this is standard procedure for applicants. He was never called back, so his wife called and inquired about the status of his application. She was told the applications were taken down on Monday (Jan. 31), and Animal Services staff were doing interviews. He has heard nothing since.

Meanwhile, Assistant State’s Attorney Gary Kovanda went into court Dec. 20 and requested another continuance. The judge granted it, but Flaningam was told that this will be the final one. Kovanda was given until Feb. 4 to file a motion.

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