Archive for Thursday, October 27, 2005

Officer files federal suit against city

55-year-old alleges age discrimination

October 27, 2005

A Basehor police officer, who was passed over for promotion a year ago, has filed a federal age-discrimination lawsuit against the city of Basehor.

Sgt. Martin Cigich, a 19-year police department veteran and a former interim police chief, filed the complaint last week in U.S. District Court in Kansas City, Kan. The complaint alleges the city "illegally failed to hire (Cigich) on the basis of his age by denying him a promotion to police chief."

Cigich, now 55, served as interim police chief following the retirement of longtime police chief Vince Weston in April 2004. Cigich, along with approximately 30 other candidates, applied for the permanent position during a search for Weston's replacement.

The current police chief, Terry Horner, 43, was hired by unanimous vote of the Basehor City Council in August 2004.

When reached by a reporter just before his shift began Monday afternoon, Cigich referred all questions to his attorney, Stephen Thornberry of Kansas City, Mo. Thornberry, who has handled numerous cases involving age discrimination, could not be reached for comment.

Cigich's complaint maintains that he "satisfactorily met the legitimate job expectations" for the police chief position, but the city "recruited and hired a younger, less qualified individual outside of the existing police department staff."

The complaint also alleges "a management employee of (the city) made a derogatory age-biased comment regarding seeking a young individual for the available position."

While the complaint doesn't name the employee or list the specific comment, some in city government believe the "age-biased comment" referred to a story regarding the police chief search in a July 2004 edition of The Sentinel.

In the story, David Fuqua, who was city administrator at the time, said, "we are looking for someone who is relatively young and who has the drive to make things happen."

But in a previous story regarding the police chief search that appeared in March 2004, Fuqua said the city would not rule out hiring a new police chief from within the department and that all in-house candidates would be given due consideration.

"You have to do that," Fuqua said last year. "You have to give employees who have been here and paid their dues credit for what they've done."

The city has 20 days to respond to the lawsuit.

Basehor city attorney John Thompson objected to the allegation that the city discriminated against Cigich, who has worked for the department since May 1986. He also said the city acted within the law by hiring Horner.

"The city denies there was any form of age discrimination, or any other kind of discrimination, in hiring Terry Horner," Thompson said. "All applicants were evaluated based on their qualifications."

Julian Espinoza, a former Basehor City Council member, voted in favor of hiring Horner last year. He denied that council members discriminated Cigich.

"I can unequivocally say that age was never, ever a factor," Espinoza said. "That had nothing to do with the hiring. ... I think if you look at Terry's credentials, there's no way you could stack Marty's against them.

"Terry had the educational background, the police background, the training background and he brought a lot to the city. ... Even looking back on it now, I think (Horner) was a perfect fit for the city."

Keith Sifford, a current council member, was part of a three-person committee charged with leading the search for a new police chief a year ago. Like Espinoza, Sifford also maintains that age wasn't a factor in not promoting Cigich.

"It was never an issue," Sifford said. "It was something that never came up during any discussions we ever had."

During a search for a new employee, "you hire the best available person with the best qualifications," Sifford said, and the city got its man by hiring Horner.

According to the Kansas Human Rights Commission, this isn't the first time Cigich, who lives in Kansas City, Kan., has lodged a complaint against the city's employment practices. He had previously filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which investigated the case and issued a "no probable cause" finding.

The human rights commission reviewed and upheld the EEOC's findings, according to a document dated Oct. 20.

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