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Southland attorney requests TBPA settlement

 


wrangell — The former general manager of Thomas Bay Power Authority is asking the utility’s Board of Commissioners for a severance package that was denied upon termination earlier this year– and has retained legal counsel in order to do so.

The Commission terminated Paul Southland as the head of TBPA on April 26 after Commissioner Dave Galla moved to relieve him of his duties. That motion passed 5-2 among the commissioners, with members John Jensen and Robert Larson voting no.

Southland, who said at the time he planned on returning to work in the commercial fishing industry, was provided with a written decision relieving him and was set to receive a three-month severance package in accordance with his employment contract.

Southland’s 2012 employment contract stated that he was entitled to three months of salary as a lump sum payment if terminated without cause. The severance package would have amounted to three months of pay for Southland, who was contractually entitled to receive $85,000 a year in salary.

The commissioners then met in executive session on Friday, May 3 to discuss the issue of Southland’s severance.

In a 5-1 vote, with commissioner Edgely voting to pay Southland, and Galla abstaining, the group decided to reverse course on a memorandum directing the city to provide a post-termination package.

After Southland’s termination, Galla had sent a memo to Borough finance director Jeff Jabusch instructing the city to pay his April salary and three months of severance pay.

Clay Hammer, Wrangell’s Light and Power superintendent and member of the commission said he voted against the severance package because Southland was not actually terminated, but given two days paid time off at the end of his contract.

“Severance, as I understand it, is to provide some protection for the employee in the event that their contract is shortened and ended before it goes to term,” Hammer said. “Southland was being paid to the end of his term. He had a 12-month contract and was being paid for 12 months. The language, when we released him two working days before the end of his contract, was just that; we simply released him from any further obligation to Thomas Bay.”

During the executive session, attorney Mike Nash represented Southland, though he was not allowed into the closed portion of the meeting and was only privy to the decision not to pay the severance deal.

According to a letter sent by Nash to the Commission on May 23, Southland is asking for a reinstatement of his severance package – and that he is willing to take the issue before an arbitrator if need be.

“Mr. Southland wishes to resolve this matter quickly and amicably,” Nash said. “He will accept as a settlement of all claims in an amount set out in the employment contract and the letter of commendation urged by members of the TBPA Commission at its April 26, 2013 meeting. If agreement can be reached, Mr. Southland will not pursue potential remedy of Commission action taken at a Special Meeting held May 3, 2013 by the Thomas Bay Power Authority Commission in violation of Alaska Open Meetings Act.”

Nash also wrote that the Commission should consider previous statements made by members, as well as documents sent to the City and Borough, when choosing their course of action.

“The Commission President and Secretary characterized Mr. Southland’s departure as a termination,” Nash added. “On April 29, 2013 The President and Secretary sent a memo to Mr. Jabusch that calls the action a ‘termination,’ and instructs Mr. Jabusch to pay out the severance package. Under the terms of his employment contract, Mr. Southland is due the three-month severance package. Commissioner Ashton acknowledged this action as a termination in an email dated April 29, 2013.”

According to Nash, members of the commission have claimed that they did not realize that termination would result in severance pay – a statement he said is not credible.

“Moments before the termination of Mr. Southland, the commission had, by resolution read aloud in the meeting, offered a contract to Mr. (Mick) Nichols that contained the same severance provision,” Nash wrote. “In addition these same Commissioners adopted Resolution 2012-01 in turn adopting Mr. Southland’s employment contract containing the severance paragraph by a unanimous roll call vote.”

The use of the word “termination” in communication between TBPA commissioners and the city – as well as the Wrangell Sentinel’s use of the word “fired” in a previous story – was another issue Nash seeks to deal with in his letter.

“The Commission’s characterization of its action as a termination resulted in embarrassment to Mr. Southland and harassment of Mr. Southland’s family,” Nash stated. “Mr. Southland has suffered harm to his reputation and his son has been harassed by members of the community over this matter. If the action of the commission was not a termination (as Mr. Jabusch alleges is the Commission’s position) then its communication that Mr. Southland was fired is defamatory and actionable per se as libel.”

Commission president Jensen did not return a phone interview request by deadline for this story.

 

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