Taming of the Shrew

In a clash of wills in Highland Heights, one woman had to go.

Crumbs From the Table of Joy Cleveland Play House, 8500 Euclid Avenue Through March 9, 216-795-7000.
Tracy Collins says she's a whistle-blower. Her - ex-boss says she's incompetent. - Walter  Novak
Tracy Collins says she's a whistle-blower. Her ex-boss says she's incompetent.

Tracy Collins wasn't a shrinking violet. As payroll clerk for the City of Highland Heights for 23 years, Collins had seniority -- and the confidence that goes with it.

"People in a position for a long time, right or wrong, they tend to be more outspoken," says David McDowell, a former city finance director. "Tracy tended to have her own viewpoint about things."

And she believed it was her duty to share it. When her coat was singed by a space heater in her office, Collins demanded that city council pay for a new one. It did. When the city asked her for a United Way contribution, Collins replied with a memo detailing her philosophical differences with the agency.

In 1992, she wrote that she felt "taken advantage of and discriminated against" when she didn't receive the bonus awarded other workers. She filled in for her boss when he was absent; why shouldn't she get the perks given to police lieutenants who did the same?

But if Collins could be a pistol, she had met her match in Mayor Fran Hogg. Petite, pretty, and aggressively hands-on, Hogg came to the job with big ideas in 1996. Collins soon became a pet project.

It was inevitable, Hogg says. "The behavior problems I identified had always been there, but no one had tackled them." A former English teacher, Hogg saw herself as just the person to do so.

Instead, things turned ugly. Resentment blossomed in a garden of pettiness. Each woman blames the other: Hogg says Collins stopped speaking to her or even looking at her. Collins says Hogg made a point to disagree with her on everything.

Total meltdown never seemed far away. When Hogg fired Collins last spring, it surprised almost no one. Such is life in suburban city halls, where nothing is too trivial for legislative action -- or unworthy of a good whisper campaign.

But Collins, who is fighting her termination in court, has two cards up her sleeve.

First, she had civil service protection, designed specially to protect public employees from the whims of elected officials: You can lose your job because you suck, but not because the mayor dislikes you.

Second, Collins had witnessed Hogg paying people with cash from a paper bag. And when it comes to conflicts with public officials, a sack full of cash is a trump card waiting to be played.

Hogg's ambition seemed matched only by her inability to keep top lieutenants. For five years, the finance director's door was in near-permanent revolution. Hogg fired one director. Another resigned under pressure. One stayed eight weeks; another made it eight months. A fifth accepted the job, then changed his mind before even starting. (The sixth, Mary Kovalchik, hired in May 2001, remains in office.)

Before James Bell signed on as finance director in the middle of that string, he says, Hogg offered him one last chance to back out. Tracy Collins, Hogg warned, was almost impossible to work with. Did he think he could handle her? Did he still want the job?

Bell thought Hogg's questions odd, but he accepted anyway. "I wanted to keep an open mind," he says.

But Bell quit within two months -- and not because of the payroll clerk. Collins was friendly and good at her job, he says. It was Hogg who drove him crazy. She seemed irked by his friendship with Collins, he says. Worse, she was a micromanager who didn't respect his work, he claims.

Former Finance Director Michael Nolte, who lasted one year before Hogg fired him, agrees. "She thinks she's an expert on every single facet of City Hall," he says. "She truly does know nothing."

Tom Comella, a former council president and Hogg ally, says the mayor once vowed to "get Tracy Collins, if that's the last thing I do." Hogg denies the allegation.

But even those who like Collins admit she isn't blameless. Both Bell and McDowell say they urged Collins to be more careful. "I chalked [the problems] up to a personality difference," Bell says. "Two ladies who could not get along together."

Hogg says one finance director who accepted the job, Robert Paul, rejected it before he even started because he was worried about dealing with Collins. (Paul, now finance director in Aurora, downplays the Collins factor, but doesn't deny it.)

Yet Collins, filled with the confidence of the tenured, rarely seemed too worried. Nor did she seem to question her own culpability, even though some of her hijinks would have spelled trouble under the most tolerant of bosses.

Collins liked to leave messages in the "memo" section of employees' paychecks; in November 1999, city workers received checks reading "This means war!" Collins says it was a reference to Bugs Bunny. Hogg says otherwise: "Nobody was saying, 'Did you get the latest cartoon?' People were shocked." Collins was suspended for three days.

In September 2000, a list of firefighters' salaries was mysteriously posted in the firehouse -- in Collins's handwriting. The information was public, but the move was nonetheless unseemly, since maintaining privacy is the first rule of payroll workers. When the mayor questioned her, Collins said someone must have found an old worksheet, Hogg says. Days later, the fire chief learned the real story: A firefighter said he'd asked Collins for the information and she provided it, Hogg says.

Hogg was livid. "You have in many instances overreached your authority," she wrote. Collins could be terminated for "continued poor attendance, insubordination, acting outside the scope of your duties, neglect of duty, and making malicious or threatening statements about a city employee" -- the last point being a reference to the Bugs Bunny message.

From that moment on, Collins could do nothing right. Hogg and Kovalchik upbraided her for filing her nails, leaving early, arriving late, and spreading her lunch out on her desk when she was supposed to be working, according to her personnel file. She wasn't supposed to use the "memo" section of payroll checks. Or burn a candle at her desk. Or take personal calls.

Even Collins finally seemed to grow worried. "I welcome all dialogue between us," she wrote Hogg last March. "Beginning March 25, you will see the onset of the making of a model employee."

On April 11, she was fired. The main reason, according to Hogg: a series of mistakes with the city's payroll, including double-depositing into each employee's checking account during one pay period. The mistake could have cost the city $40,000, Hogg says, and took days to fix.

"I had hope for Tracy until the very, very end," Hogg says sadly. "But keeping her on was way too dangerous, at this point. There was not a single payroll she did correctly in 2002."

The decision devastated Collins. She took a job at a bookstore and cashed in her pension after her unemployment claim was denied. She's terrified of losing her house. "I'm 42 years old," she says. "Now I'm basically starting over again as if I'm 17."

Collins appealed to the city's civil service commission, claiming she was fired because Hogg hated her. After the commission disagreed, she filed a suit appealing the ruling.

She also filed a second suit, this one naming Hogg, the city, and Finance Director Kovalchik, claiming emotional distress and unfair removal. It argues that she deserves protection as a whistle-blower.

Collins first raised such claims before the civil service commission. In the summer of 2001, Collins testified, she questioned Kovalchik about Hogg's actions at the city's annual Home Days celebration. Collins had learned that Hogg had collected cash from vendors, then paid the college kids on duty from a bag containing that money.

Some of those kids were already on the city's payroll, Collins says, meaning they had to be paid through the Finance Department to comply with tax codes.

It wasn't exactly a smoking gun, but if publicly revealed, could be an embarrassment to a hands-on mayor who fancied herself a financial expert. "[Kovalchik] said she would address it with Fran," Collins says. "That was the end of it." John Wolanin, Collins's attorney, says his client suffered retaliation because she raised questions.

Yet Hogg freely admits to paying with cash. She can't seem to understand why anyone would care. Nor can she see why anyone would view Collins's dismissal as vindictive, and she is quick to dismiss Collins's defenders as carrying personal vendettas against her.

Even the heavy turnover in the Finance Department was all Collins's fault, says the mayor. "One of the reasons I had trouble hanging onto finance directors was Tracy," she says. "Her capabilities were just not there."

Like it or not, the citizens of Highland Heights will be paying to defend that theory in court.

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