KEYSER - Discussion of a proposal for contract work by a former city employee sparked an emphatic response from a Keyser City Council member whose father was mayor when the former employee sued the city for unlawfully firing him.

By Liz Beavers
lbeavers@newstribune.info
Tribune Managing Editor
KEYSER - Discussion of a proposal for contract work by a former city employee sparked an emphatic response from a Keyser City Council member whose father was mayor when the former employee sued the city for unlawfully firing him.
Ralph Rice, who worked for the City of Keyser as a wastewater plant operator in the early 1990s, had sent a proposal to mayor Damon Tillman, offering his services as a contracted grant writer.
In the proposal, Rice said he felt he could benefit the city by researching and applying for smaller grants while David Smarik, the grant writer hired by the city last month, worked on some of the bigger projects.
During the last council meeting, Smarik agreed that a second grant writer would be beneficial, especially since the city gave him the go ahead to launch a grant search which might eventually lead to a new city building and police department.
In recommending the city also contract with Rice, Tillman said Rice had “proven himself” by writing some smaller grants for the Keyser Police Department.
“He hits pay dirt,” Keyser police chief Tom Golden added.
Council member Mike Ryan, however, emphatically told Tillman and his fellow council members that he did not think the city should do any business with Rice.
“He worked for the city of Keyser and sued the City of Keyser,” he said. “I know Ralph Rice and I don’t want to have anything to do with him.”
In 1992, when Rice worked in the sewer department, and Ryan’s father Glen Ryan was serving as mayor, Rice contacted the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR) to notify them that Keyser was illegally discharging sewage into the Potomac River.
Following an inspection by the DNR in mid-summer that year, the report was found to be true and the city was fined for the violation.
Shortly thereafter, Rice’s supervisors suspended him without pay for a week and transferred him to another department.
Rice claimed that the layoff was in retaliation for his report to DNR, and filed a civil lawsuit against the city in what was believed at the time to be the first lawsuit involving a municipality under the state’s new “whistleblower” law.
In March 1993, the City of Keyser reached a monetary settlement with Rice, in which the city acknowledged that Rice did the right thing by reporting the illegal sewage discharge and further encouraged any future employees to report wrongdoings if they saw any.
The amount of money involved was not publicly disclosed.
Right around that same time, however, then-mayor Glen Ryan signed a memorandum announcing that Rice was being dismissed “due to a reduction in force at the waste treatment plant and budgetary limitations.
“The city will entertain his application for any future position without discrimination or preference,” the notice said.
Approximately six years later, then-mayor Keith Hayward recommended re-hiring Rice as a means of “correcting an injustice.”
Rice has since worked in other positions, including chief of police in Piedmont for awhile, and is now living in another state.
During the recent council meeting, Tillman said he felt council members should put their personal feelings aside when making decisions for the city.
“It doesn’t matter how we feel about him, it’s what’s best for the City of Keyser,” he said.
“We don’t have a lot of money. That’s why we need grants. Let’s put the city first,” he added.
Mike Ryan noted, however, that the city could “go through Region 8” to apply for the smaller grants.
City administrator Buck Eagle expressed his concern that there could be no oversight with Rice living out of town.
He also noted that there’s no guarantee that Rice would be successful in even obtaining enough money to pay the $1,400 a month he was requesting in his proposed contract.
“It’s a risky proposition,” Eagle said.
Council member Terry Liller also said he had a “level of discomfort” in voting on the issue.
Council member William Zacot made a motion to table the proposal, but then rescinded that motion and made another motion to not accept the contract.
Ryan seconded it and the motion carried 4-0, with Jennifer Junkins absent from the meeting.