Olentangy Valley News

Township firefighter settles, will return to force

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A female firefighter fired six years ago will return to her job at the Orange Township Fire Department with full seniority following the settlement of a gender discrimination lawsuit.

Raechel Peters (formerly Sterud) also will receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in the settlement, which negates a $1.7-million judgment awarded to her by a Franklin County Common Pleas Court jury in March. She already has signed the agreement and township trustees approved the settlement Monday, July 15.

"It feels great to have my job back and to be a firefighter again," Peters wrote in an email to ThisWeek Olentangy Valley News. "I look forward to serving the residents of Orange Township and will wear the uniform with pride.

"My goal from the beginning was just to be a firefighter," she wrote. "I was not trying to make a statement about gender equality. But if this lawsuit and settlement motivates a young girl somewhere to pursue the fire service or helps another fire department make changes to help recruit and retain more female firefighters, that would make me very happy."

The jury ruled in favor of Peters in the gender discrimination case against the township and its fire department following a weeklong trial. Under terms of the settlement, which will save the township about $800,000, the township will pay out $300,000 and its insurance carrier will pay $575,000.

Of the township portion, $147,701 will go to her attorney, Daniel Mordarski; $113,656 to Peters; and $38,643 toward her pension. There was no breakdown available on the $575,000 portion.

Trustee Rob Quigley said after the July 15 meeting the settlement saves the township money and that fire officials will make sure Peters has a good work environment when she returns to her job. She will be assigned to the fire station on South Old State Road.

Peters' former supervisor, Lt. Keith Myers, was found liable for $75,000 in the jury decision. The jury decided he acted with "actual malice" in recommending her termination.

He is still with the department, as is the firefighter whom Peters claimed had harassed her. Quigley said the jury finding against Myers also was taken care of with the settlement.

Mordarski said Tuesday, July 16, that he anticipates Peters will return to the department in November. The fire station will be modified to have female sleeping quarters and a restroom.

"It takes a lot of courage for her to go back and trust (the discrimination) won't happen again," he said. "Certainly, there is always concern."

But Mordarski said he also has confidence that the township is doing the best it can. He called the settlement a win-win since Peters gets to return to being a firefighter and the township saves money.

"The taxpayers get a pretty good benefit out of this situation. She gave up about $800,000." he said.

During the July 15 meeting, Trustee Lisa Knapp said she is pleased Peters can return to her job and that the fire department will have a female firefighter again.

"The fire chiefs will work with the fire department so this situation never happens again," Knapp said.

Chief Tom Stewart and Assistant Chief Matt Noble both were with the department when the discrimination took place. Peters, who had been with the department for about a year, claimed various types of harassment, including a firefighter leaving the restroom door open while he used it, prior to her termination in 2007.

Board worthwhile?

Also at the July 15 meeting, Knapp suggested the township's Economic Development Advisory Board be suspended.

"What have they been able to accomplish? I have not seen anything concrete," said Knapp, who has been the trustee liaison to the advisory board since January.

She said she'd like to have a part-time employee work with the advisory board to help attract businesses to the township. Knapp said she supports the board and that board members have worked hard, but have not had enough support from the township.

Quigley said the advisory board, formed in summer 2011, knew it would take time to get things done. He worked with the board last year.

"This is a new process ... to try to grow business. This is going to take some time," he said. "For us to give up right now, I think that's the wrong way to move."

The seven-member board, from which several people have resigned for various reasons, held its first meeting in November 2011. Its primary goal is to attract and retain businesses in the township.

 

Poll workers needed

Officials with the Delaware County Board of Elections also attended the July 15 meeting.

They told trustees that Orange Township has one of the lowest turnouts in the county when it comes to residents working at polling places on Election Day. The elections board wants to change that, not only in Orange Township, but in other places such as Powell.

Orange Township needs about 80 poll workers each election, and generally, about one-third are nonresidents.

Elections officials asked trustees to consider approving a resolution supporting an elections board program aimed at changing that situation. No trustee action was taken July 15.

"We have to change the way we get (poll workers)," said Karla Herron, director of the board of elections. "We need your help."

She also said a lot of the older people who have worked at the polls for years are stepping down and new people are needed.

Bronwen Evener of the elections board said the expectation is that voter confidence rises when voters see people from their own community working in the polling places. While the job requires about a 15-hour day at a pay rate of $120 for the day, the whole idea is about community involvement, she said.

Ross McDonald of the elections board told trustees there are a number of ways to try to attract new people to work at the polls. Those include advertising through social media, such as the township's Facebook site, or sending emails to residents.

"2013 is an election of local officials (in November). Off-year general elections are the worse for getting poll workers," he said.

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