Town settles Kennebeck retaliation case

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After more than a yearlong legal battle, former town facilities director Steve Kennebeck says he has settled a retaliatory discharge case he brought against the town of Taos.

Kennebeck's case was finalized in Taos district court in January 2018 when both legal teams requested that it be dismissed. Kennebeck said he was awarded $25,000 in severance and unemployment insurance along with another undisclosed amount from the town in the settlement. Kennebeck also said he donated a large portion of that amount to the Rocky Mountain Youth Corps in Taos.

Town Manager Rick Bellis said the town finance department had "no record or recollection of any payment to Mr. Kennebeck or for anything related to a settlement."

The town responded to a public records request involving payments and documents related to a settlement of the case, by saying more time would be needed to obtain the records.

Kennebeck believes questions remain as to why the town supposedly settled the matter after arguing in court documents that the town believed he was not entitled to any sort of relief. "If they didn't think they did anything wrong, then why did they settle?" Kennebeck said in an interview.

The situation began in 2013 when Kennebeck sent a letter to Cynthia Spray, then director of the town's arts and culture district, regarding her performance at the position. According to the letter sent by Kennebeck, he believed Spray was not fulfilling all of her duties. Her contract, according to Kennebeck, was not renewed and $3,800 was withheld from her final pay.

Two years after Spray left the position, she was paid the remaining $3,800 of her contract after Mayor Dan Barrone and Bellis came into office. The town denied that the payment was "improper or illegal" in court documents.

The check, signed by Barrone, was discovered by town council member Judi Cantu during her time as Mayor-pro tem, according to Cantu. She decided to make a records request to find out why the payment was withheld and why the payment was later fulfilled by the new administration.

"I don't believe there are accidents," Cantu said. "I believe things happen at the right time for a reason."

Cantu's initial request came back negative as she claims the town said the records she requested did not exist.

According to Kennebeck, he was terminated in 2016 by the town after he complied with an inspection of public records request and handed out the documents to the public. He said town officials gave him no reason for his termination. Kennebeck then filed suit against the town claiming he had been fired in retaliation for releasing the documents involving Spray who, according to the court documents, had a relationship with Bellis.

The settlement agreement, obtained by The Taos News, states "the agreement is not, and shall not be construed to be, an admission of fault or wrongdoing on the part of the released parties," and instead the matter was settled due to the "consideration of the economic costs, including the time and expense of litigation, not on any admission of liability."

The settlement agreement, provided by Kennebeck, bears a signature for Kennebeck in the case, but not the town. According to Kennebeck's lawyer Jamison Barkley, the matter has in fact been settled.

In the past, Bellis had denied any wrongdoing on the part of the town in this case.

Kennebeck was an "at-will" employee when he was working for the town, meaning he could be terminated at any time without cause. Recently, the town reversed its ordinances by changing the at-will status for some director positions and making them classified, which means they cannot be fired without a legitimate cause. This change does not affect the facilities director, which remains an at-will position.

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