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December 12, 2012

East Hampton, Worker Reach Accord


East Hampton Town has opted to reinstate an employee who faced termination rather that participate in what could have been a very contentious public airing of the charges against her.

Linda Norris, a 17-year veteran of the town's Human Services Department, was suspended and faced termination after a disciplinary hearing scheduled for Friday.

Tom Horn, a former town employee and union head, and attorney Lawrence Kelly, threw the town a nasty curveball, though. Horn, who is now a labor attorney, said Norris, who hired him, was entitled to a public hearing.

An hour before it was scheduled to begin the town notified Horn that it would engage in settlement talks while a throng of Norris's supporters sat inside the hearing hall at town hall. Hours later the two sides reached an agreement -- Norris would be reinstated and transferred to the town's Housing and Community Development department, pending approval by the town board.

"The town gets to pick the hearing officer, so the system is slanted towards the employer," Horn said. "There's a certain level of intimidation there." The attorney said that the odds change drastically if an employee decides to hire an attorney. "These proceeding most likely won't stand up in State Supreme Court," he commented.

Horn has become somewhat of the go-to attorney for clients targeted by the town. When Larry Penny, the director of the town's Natural Resources Department faced termination he hired Horn, who negotiated a settlement.

Horn said the town needs to learn that there is a level of protection for its employees, depending upon, "the longer a person has been a public employee, and the better his or her record is."

Both Penny and Norris wrongfully had their names dragged through the mud, Horn opined. "There is no need to suspend someone publicly. It makes it a public issue." He guessed the town used the strategy because, "it puts pressure on the employee to comply."

Human Services Director Diane Patrizio suspended Norris, accusing her of five charges of misconduct and three charges on incompetence. Horn said, "all these things were very vague. They didn't give any specific dates. They didn't say who did what to whom. The law says you have to make specific charges."

The town, like Southampton, Sag Harbor Village and many other municipalities, uses Vincent Twoomey as its labor attorney. Ironically, Twoomey's firm once represented East Hampton in a case against Horn, who argued his position was wrongly terminated by a prior administration, perhaps for his union activities. Horn won that case as well.

Thomas Marcoline, who works for Twomey, handled the Norris case for the town. He did not return a call by press time.

When asked if he has become a proverbial thorn in the side of the town, Horn said "I think so . . . personified."

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