Former Pittsburgh public works employee files suit, says he was fired for political reasons

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A former assistant director for the city's public works department who said he wanted nothing more than to clear Pittsburgh's streets and work on its special events sued the city and its top administrators Thursday, saying he was fired because he didn't support new Mayor Bill Peduto.

Robert Palmosina, 50, of Banksville worked in the Department of Public Works from 1987 when he was hired as a laborer until Jan. 7 when he was fired from a job that paid around $77,000. Like many members of the department, he also had a political role, as a Democratic Committee member and eventually as 20th Ward chairman.

"I never brought politics into this job," he said in an interview after the lawsuit was filed. "I push my candidates in my community. I promoted the people that I thought should be promoted."

In the run-up to the May 2013 primary, Mr. Peduto's backers including current city operations director Guy Costa asked for his support, according to the complaint filed in U.S. District Court by attorney Timothy O'Brien.

"In an April 2013 meeting attended by representatives from the Peduto campaign ... [Mr. Palmosina] asked what would happen if he did not support Peduto's campaign, and was informed by defendant Costa that plaintiff needed to be 'on the right side,' " according to the complaint.

However, the South Hills wards in which Mr. Palmosina was active voted for mayoral candidate Jack Wagner, a Beechview Democrat, according to the lawsuit. Mr. Palmosina said in an interview that he supported Mr. Wagner.

Mr. Palmosina was dismissed on the same day that his fellow public works assistant directors Kevin Quigley and Dennis James were fired. All were Democratic Committee ward chairmen.

The administration has maintained that decisions were made based on performance and that long-standing employees in managerial positions were invited to reapply for their jobs.

"There are a lot of city employees that didn't support me in the election," Mr. Peduto said. "Not all of them are no longer working for the city. In fact, some of them I've promoted.

"If I fired every city employee who opposed me, we wouldn't have very many city employees."

"This particular employee was terminated because he didn't support the winning candidate," said Mr. O'Brien.

In addition to the city, Mr. Palmosina has sued Mr. Peduto, Mr. Costa and chief of staff Kevin Acklin, who told him he was fired but provided no reason, according to the complaint. Mr. Palmosina's firing violates the First Amendment, according to the complaint.

Mr. Acklin said that Mr. Palmosina was told that his position was being eliminated as part of a departmental reorganization, but that he could take a severance package or apply for a civil service job.

Mr. O'Brien said the city can fire someone for cause or for no reason. "They can't fire him for reasons having to do with political affiliation," unless political fidelity is necessary to doing the job, the attorney said. "Nor would anybody with common sense think that in order to clear roads you have to be a Democrat or a Republican," he said.

A list provided by the administration indicated that 68 people -- including former mayor Luke Ravenstahl -- had left the city's employ since the beginning of the year. It was not clear how many were fired.

Mr. Palmosina wants compensatory and punitive damages. He said he wasn't sure if he wanted his old job back.

"I'd have to think about that, to be honest with you," he said. The firing has embarrassed him, he said. "Going to church, to have all those eyes on me, wondering what I did, when I didn't do anything -- I don't know."

Rich Lord:, 412-263-1542 or on Twitter @richelord. First Published March 13, 2014 1:06 PM

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