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Retired deputy Johnstown treasurer files discrimination complaint against city

JOHNSTOWN – Retired Deputy City Treasurer Victoria Nellis says she has filed a federal U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission [EEOC] complaint against the city government for choosing not to raise her pay to an equal level with city’s male Deputy City Engineer Jeff Putnam.

Nellis retired in January after the Common Council chose not to approve a 44.4 percent pay raise which would have increased her salary by $20,470, taking it from $46,155 to $66,625. The raise would have made her pay exactly equal to the 2021 budgeted amount for the deputy city engineer at $66,625, but the council balked at the increase and ultimately approved a $3,692 raise instead bringing Nellis’ salary to $49,847.

Nellis said her pay raise was unfair and she retired in January after working for the city for 28 years. She said she doesn’t want her job back, but she does want the public to know the truth.

“I do not want to be reinstated. The place is falling apart. In 28 years, this is the worst I’ve ever seen it, the corruption and the stealing and the lying — it’s awful,” she said. “Honestly, what I want, is to be heard. I want for EEOC to recommend an attorney, probably in Albany, or outside of Albany — I don’t care — but I just want everything to be out there in the open, as to what’s going on.”

The proposed raise for Nellis was backed by both Mayor Vern Jackson and City Treasurer Mike Gifford who had also proposed raising the salary for City Clerk Carrie Allen’s salary by 52.4 percent, increasing her pay $24,746, taking it from $47,254 to $72,000. The argument for Allen’s increase was that she was also working as City Attorney Michael Poulin’s secretary, the position she had held prior to the retirement of former City Clerk Cathy Vanalstyne.

Fourth Ward Councilman Max Spritzer and 3rd Ward Councilwoman Amy Praught argued in favor of reducing the increases.

During council budget discussions the issue of gender discrimination was brought up immediately in defense of the raises offered to both women.

“So, I take it you’re in favor of discrimination,” Gifford said.

“I did not say that, Mike,” Spritzer retorted at the time.

“That’s out of line, Mike. That’s totally out of line,” Praught said.

“No, it’s not. That’s the reason it’s proposed,” Gifford said. “We have had a deep-seated and long-term discrimination issue with this city.”

“Why hasn’t it been addressed before this year?” Praught asked. “Why are we doing this during a pandemic, when we’re going to have possibly a 20 percent aid cut from the state?”

Ultimately the council approved a $3,780 raise for Allen, who continues to serve as Poulin’s legal secretary in addition to her duties as city clerk.

Since then Gifford, Jackson and Talerico all announced 2021 would be their last year in office and none are seeking reelection in November. Praught resigned her council seat because she moved out of the 3rd Ward, but is running as the Republican candidate for city mayor.

Nellis described the process of her complaint and said council meeting minutes were a part of the information she has turned over to the federal government.

“I could not be heard [by EEOC] until May [18], because of COVID, …. and the woman that I spoke with said ‘I am filing this charge for you’, and it was filed on May 21,” Nellis said. “I had to supply them with all of the information that I had. The meeting minutes when Amy had said we weren’t giving people significant raises because of COVID, even though the city wasn’t taking in any less money, and they approved the water department budget [which included the hiring of] new employees.”

Since January, Nellis said she has continued to work part-time for the city treasurer’s office, because her job is appointed by the city treasurer. She said in the past it was a year-to-year appointment, but at some point the city charter was changed to allow her to serve four-year appointments concurrent with the city treasurer.

“I’ve continued to work for Mike, just processing accounts payable checks, paying all of the bills for every department,” she said. “I’m being paid my same hourly rate, but I’m only working, maybe 10 hours a week, as needed, because no one besides Mike and I has ever used the accounting system. They had no one in place for Mike to train or for me to train. Before [deceased Democratic Party candidate for city treasurer] Tom Suydam passed away he did reach out and he asked me if I’d consider working for him as his deputy, but no, no, no. Absolutely not.”

Suydam, 76, died unexpectedly in his sleep May 12, leaving Republican Party primary winner Thomas Herr as the only candidate for city treasurer on the November ballot.

Nellis said she believes her complaint has been relayed to the city’s attorneys.

“It’s kind of a wait and see, and I don’t know if it’ll be another year or so,” she said. “EEOC will hash it out with the city’s attorneys, and I’m waiting to see what they come up with. Our Internal Control Officer [Darryl Purinton] that was there, who left, said ‘At a minimum they will offer you $50,000’, but I don’t know if that’s true or not., because I have no idea.”

Purinton, who quit his $84,050 position as internal control officer with the city in March, did not return a phone call seeking comment Tuesday.

Nellis said even if the city offered her a $50,000 payout, she isn’t interested in the money.

“Absolutely not, no, no, no, no, no, no — I was basically forced out of there like six years before my retirement date, and no I will not,” she said of accepting a settlement deal. “I retired because I was making significantly less than my male counterpart.”

Poulin did not return a phone call seeking comment for this story.

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