Former Harrisburg public works director says mayor fired him for failing to promote his son: lawsuit

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This story has been updated with a statement from the city.

Harrisburg’s former director of public works has filed a federal lawsuit accusing Mayor Wanda Williams of wrongfully firing him for refusing to promote his son to a job he was unqualified for and for the then being disciplined for driving a city truck without a commercial driver’s license.

Nate Spriggs was fired on June 21, the same day the mayor’s son, Dion Dockens, was serving an unpaid day off for driving the city truck in York without a license, according to the lawsuit.

That day was also the first business day after Spriggs signed payroll action forms that formed the basis of his termination listed on his termination papers, according to the lawsuit.

Spriggs had held the position for less than a year, having been hired by then-Mayor Eric Papenfuse in September 2021. Mayor Wanda Williams took office in January 2022.

Williams’ team had asked Spriggs to join the city as director of public works if she won the election before Papenfuse hired her, according to the lawsuit.

Williams spokesman Matt Maisel initially said Wednesday afternoon that they could not respond to the allegations outlined in the lawsuit.

“We received notice of this today and are not commenting on the lawsuit until our attorneys have an opportunity to review it,” Maisel said.

But hours later he emailed a short statement which read: ‘On Wednesday, Mayor Wanda RD Williams was made aware of a lawsuit filed by a former employee. Mayor Williams is eager to present his side of the story in court. The City of Harrisburg will not comment further on this pending legal matter.

The lawsuit was filed in federal court because the first count falls within federal jurisdiction, where Spriggs claims Williams violated his First Amendment rights by firing him for raising concerns to her and the attorney. of the city regarding the ethical violations of the promotion of the mayor’s son.

The other two counts in the trial allege that Williams violated state whistleblower law and wrongfully fired him. While his position was legally “at will,” meaning he could be fired without cause, the law contains an exception for retaliation.

At the time Spriggs was fired, city officials declined to comment on the reasons for his dismissal. But the lawsuit says city officials told Spriggs he was fired for signing payroll action forms on Friday, June 17. Signing forms is a routine activity for department managers, including Spriggs.

The city council and the mayor each approved the actions on the payroll forms before Spriggs signed them on June 17 in front of the director of human relations and on the advice of the city’s director of finance and payroll officer, according to the trial. Spriggs told city officials he had emails documenting those instructions.

He was fired the next business day, Tuesday, June 21, because Monday was a federal holiday.

The lawsuit outlined what Spriggs said were conflicts between him and Williams that began before she took office.

According to the lawsuit:

Williams called Spriggs in November or December to ask him to find a job for his son, Dockens, that he could do while on unpaid leave for a non-work related injury. His injury prevented him from doing his job on a sanitation/recycling truck.

Spriggs said he told Williams there were no other positions available, but the mayor reportedly replied that he had to come up with something by the end of the day or “I’m going to be very upset”.

Spriggs then reassigned Dockens to the highway department to collect leaf bags for two months until he returned to his regular job. Shortly after Williams’ inauguration, Spriggs said he called him several times asking him to create a leadership position for Dockens, his granddaughter, his nephew and other family members.

Spriggs said in the lawsuit that he was looking for opportunities for Dockens as a sanitation supervisor, but Dockens did not meet the required qualifications. It was then that Spriggs said Williams told him to “change the job description to match his son’s qualifications.”

In February, Spriggs said the mayor called him and asked him to discipline an employee for talking about Dockens. Spriggs said he pushed back, telling Williams no work rules were violated, but ultimately advised the employee against talking about Dockens. The employee then filed an ethics complaint against Spriggs and the city, which Spriggs says in the lawsuit was the point where he began refusing to carry out the mayor’s “requests for jobs.” for her family”.

In April, the lawsuit claims Williams was angry with Spriggs for not promoting Dockens and said his son was considering moving to Ohio. The lawsuit claimed the mayor threatened to fire Spriggs and his management team if Dockens walked away.

On April 29, Spriggs informed city attorney Neil Grover of Dockens’ promotion requests, which Spriggs said was an ethics violation, according to the lawsuit.

Grover, Williams, Spriggs and the director of human resources met on May 2 where Grover confirmed that it would be an ethical violation to promote Dockens, according to the lawsuit.

When contacted by PennLive on Wednesday, Grover said he couldn’t comment for the same reason cited by the city spokesperson.

Also in May, Spriggs said Williams called him, angry at an employee’s discipline for walking off during his shift. The employee was the boyfriend of Williams’ daughter, according to the lawsuit. The employee then resigned.

On June 16, a public works official caught Dockens driving a city-owned truck in York without the proper license, according to the lawsuit. The next day, Dockens was disciplined and given a suspension to be served the following business day, June 21.

At 8:15 a.m. on June 21, the city’s business administrator called Spriggs and called him into the office to be disciplined. At the meeting, which involved the company’s administrator and human resources director, Spriggs said he received a termination letter for signing the payroll action forms the previous business day.

The city’s chief financial officer and payroll officer also signed the forms, but were not fired, according to the lawsuit.

City spokesman Maisel said he did not know how many of Williams’ relatives were currently employed by the city. He confirmed that Dockens remained a public works employee but did not know his title.

Shortly after Spriggs was fired, AFSCME District Council 90 President Darrin Spann told PennLive that the union had clashed with Spriggs from his early days and dated back to his days as director of the Susquehanna Township. Spriggs served as township manager from 2017 to 2021.

Spann gave an example of a Spriggs shot, which was eventually reversed, of a driver taking a nap during a break between routes. Spriggs called it insubordination when the worker – who had already made his morning commute with the rubbish – went home to take a nap before going on a recycling run in York.

“He was punitive to our people for no reason,” Spann said, adding that he believed there were more grievances filed during Spriggs’ short tenure than his predecessor.

The lawsuit seeks all wages and benefits Spriggs allegedly received, including interest, raises, bonuses, insurance benefits, training promotions, lost pension benefits and seniority. The lawsuit also seeks compensatory damages for “pain, suffering and humiliation,” as well as punitive damages and attorneys’ fees and expenses.

Spriggs was hired on a salary of $120,000 a year, which had risen to $130,000 by the time he was fired.

Editor Charles Thompson contributed to this report.

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