The Niles Township zoning administrator claims she was denied pay raise for whistleblowing.

Archived Story

Lawsuit filed against Niles Twp.

Published 8:07pm Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The conflict at Niles Township has heated up once again. A township employee has filed a lawsuit against the township alleging Treasurer Jim Ringler intimidated her and has made her working conditions unbearable.

Jim Ringler

Stefanie Woodrick, zoning administrator for Niles Township, filed the three-count lawsuit last month and is seeking damages for lost wages, emotional and physical distress, humiliation and loss of reputation.

The total damages is not included in the suit but it says “the amount in controversy exceeds $25,000.”

According to the lawsuit, Woodrick is arguing township officials denied her request for a raise in August 2011 because she reported Ringler’s alleged wrongdoing — a violation of the Whistleblower Protection Act.

Woodrick submitted the written complaint against Ringler to Township Supervisor Jim Kidwell in late 2010, which sparked a third party investigation in February 2011.

Kidwell

In the suit, the plaintiff claims she is receiving “substantially less pay than other zoning administrators in Michigan.”

Leonard White, an attorney out of St. Joseph who is representing Woodrick, said she is seeking damages for lost past and future wages.

“She should have been given the raise and she wasn’t,” he said.

The confrontation

According to the lawsuit, the conflict began in August 2010 when Ringler allegedly attempted to intimidate Woodrick into making illegal zoning changes that would have benefited his work as a real estate agent.

The lawsuit states that both Ringler and Township Clerk Marge Durm-Hiatt used “intimidation

Durm-Hiatt
Durm-Hiatt

and veiled threats” to try to get her to make the changes.

Woodrick is also suing the township for violating public policy by asking her to violate Michigan law. She claims that the township’s officials’ alleged conduct was a violation of the Michigan standard of conduct for public officers and employees.

There is dispute over the details of the confrontation between Woodrick and Ringler. In the lawsuit, Woodrick claims Ringler “yelled and screamed at her, placing her in fear for her physical safety.”

But Ringler painted a far different picture of the events in an interview with the Star in November.

“I asked her some tough questions she couldn’t answer,” he said. “I ask those questions to all zoning administrators all over the county. I can’t control how she feels.”

The investigation

The third party investigation, conducted by Kalamazoo attorney Kurt McCamman of Miller, Canfield, Paddock and Stone, revealed that Ringler hadn’t violated township policy.

But Woodrick is calling the investigation into question, arguing the conduct of Ringler and Durm-Hiatt was not “properly investigated.”

According to the lawsuit, the results of the investigation were “nothing more than a political ploy, orchestrated by Ringler and Durm-Hiatt.”

Woodrick alleges that the township restricted the investigation to determining whether Ringler’s conduct violated the township’s employee manual, which doesn’t apply to elected officials like Ringler.

In an interview last October, Kidwell said something similar when he said the scope of the investigation was too narrow.

“He (McCamman) was only to investigate whether the township employee policy was violated. Had I known that was the case, I would have stopped the investigation at the beginning,” he said.

The township is still waiting on a summary report of the findings from McCamman. The township has been billed $7,400 for the investigation, but Kidwell has indicated the township won’t pay until it receives the report.

The aftermath

Since Woodrick’s complaint and the subsequent investigation of Ringler, she claims Ringler has threatened to eliminate her job and tried routinely to undermine her authority as zoning administrator. She also says Ringler has put her in a “bad light” to co-workers.

As a result, Woodrick claims her work environment has become “intolerable.”

The lawsuit also says she would have quit by now had she not needed the health insurance to cover medical costs for a health condition. She claims her medical condition has worsened as a result of Ringler’s alleged retaliatory actions as well.

Ringler, Durm-Hiatt and Kidwell declined to comment for this story based on the recommendation of the township attorney.

  • Buster

    What a shame and disgrace some of these people have brought to our community. There is something wrong at the office, time to clean out the old country club. It was always funny when it was Roseland always in the news. Now not so much, so sad.

  • http://www.facebook.com/#!/kbtonkin Kevin Tonkin

    It was inevitable that this kind of bad news was bound to follow the positive news reported yesterday. Shame that the Roseland imagine has hung around the board’s neck since the last election. Let’s hope there will be the right changes this election year to make things better.

  • dylan_c22

    Hmmmm……shocking? I don’t think so. It was just a matter of time. This is the result of allowing people to become “career” board members/politicians. They think they are untouchable and can do whatever they want without any consequences. As a township tax payer, it is sad to see once again that the township will be paying out a large sum of money because of the corruption that goes on. However, it absolutely sickens me that the residents of this township CONTINUE to re-elect these crooks to the board for the past 20 years. WAKE UP PEOPLE! Ringler and Durm-Hiatt need to GO!

  • wtrepani

    Is anyone else tiring of reading Kevin Tonkins remards to every story about Niles Township? We know your opinion – we would not have these issues if you were still there. NEWSFLASH – You lost – get over it. Try helping the new folks in what they are trying to accomplish instead of fueling the fire. At this point I would not vote for you simply because you had the opporunity to step in and help drive issues to a positive resolution, instead you just post negative comments on the NDS website.

  • http://www.facebook.com/#!/kbtonkin Kevin Tonkin

    Sorry you feel the way you do wtrepani. I am tired of all of the negative things that are being portrayed by some as trying to accomplish something good when in fact it has been nothing but bad. The newsflash is that the shoe is now on the other foot and cannot take what they dished out. Yes, I accept that I lost, but I really didn’t? It all depends on which side of the wall you are sitting. The only way to help drive issues to a positive resolution is to help vote the trouble out. That much I WILL help do!

  • Mark

    I think it is sad that this poor woman still has to work with these two people. Durm-Hiatt and Ringler should both resign!!! And where are our Trustees? Isn’t it their job to watch over the administrative portion of the board? Mr. Cooper, if I read the letters posted online correctly, knew about this happening as well and did nothing about it!! It is time for him to leave as well!! You all have been in too long!!

    Mr. Kidwell has been trying to tell us this for the last three years. Unfortunately it has always been swept under the rug, or the board and their puppets muddy the water with trumped up accusations about 10 year old buildings and what not. What does Mr. Ringler have to say now that this isn’t coming from a political peer? It is a little hard to argue all the other issues that have come out about Mr. Ringler!!! There is a reason he is slippery, he is full of stink!!

    Best wishes with the lawsuit Ms. Woodrick! I hate to see my tax dollars be wasted but you deserve better and this hopefully will be the END to DICTATOR RINGLER.

    wtrepani- Yes I too am SICK of hearing Tonkins comments. He should of been a better representative of the Township when people allowed him to be there! This garbage started while HE was in office! I am glad that we have at least one new person (MR. Kidwell) in there to watch over us.

  • dylan_c22

    I have to ask one Mr. Tonkin who exactly is causing all this trouble on the bored? Is the the four you “served” with, or the three first timers? Secondly, what are you alluding to when you say you are “tired of all of the negative things that are being portrayed by some as trying to accomplish something good when in fact it has been nothing but bad.” I believe the problems all stem from many years of a lack of TRANSPARENCY in the township. Secret meetings, closed door sessions, shady business deals, questionable accounting, cover-ups, intimadation…must I go on? Many are 100% correct that these issues were not known until Kidwell was elected. Now, everyone is up in arms because he has made this information public and shed a light on just exactly who the real Ringler is. Noble, Cooper, the late Mr. Goodwin, and yes you, too, Mr. Tonkin, were not strong enough or just plain too afraid to stand up for the tax payers of the township and put a stop to what Ringler has been doing. Jim Kidwell is not afraid to speak the truth and stand up to the good ole boys system. How much more damage will James Ringler do to the township before he finally resigns? His ego just seems to be too big to see his days are numbered. So please, Mr. Tonkin, fill me in on what exactly your saying and who is the REAL trouble on the township bored in your honest opinion? Are you for or against transparency?

  • http://www.facebook.com/#!/kbtonkin Kevin Tonkin

    I am sure you know Mark that Ms. Woodrick is related to Mr. Cooper? How is that for transparency? Perhaps your anger and aggression should be channeled to the board and not another taxpayer anxious to end this nightmare.

  • howhow

    Having personally experienced the intimidation tactics of at least one of the named people involved in this matter, I believe Ms. Woodrick’s claims and wish her a favorable outcome in the suit that she has filed. I also appreciate that Mr. Kidwell has not been bullied into becoming a puppet by those who have run things “their way” which evidence would prove has not always been in the best interest of our community. And as far as comments posted by Mr. Tonkin, I think he just likes to provoke some deeper thinking. Whether you agree or disagree with him, at least he makes you stop and think and that’s a good thing.

  • http://www.facebook.com/#!/kbtonkin Kevin Tonkin

    Sorry Mark but none of this happened during my term in office. We all knew Mr. Ringler was a realtor and was taking calls and even doing his work at the hall but did nothing illegal. Everyone forgets HE DOES NOT HAVE TO BE THERE the clerk and treasurer are required by law to have deputies there. He could have done his business at his office and was there to help cover for the lack of management. Bless Mr. Myers but his health was poor and the township suffered because of it. So Ringler was able to and stepped up and help! Another reason I was for a professional manager which the board agreed with but lacked funds. So don’t pull the “blame Bush” for today’s troubles.

  • dylan_c22

    So Mr. Tonkin goes on record as saying the Township board and including himself was fully aware of Mr. Ringler running his business from the Township Hall. The problem many people have with Ringler doing this is simple. He made a profit off the township tax payers. Did he pay to rent space while working his real estate job from the hall? What about the cost for the electric, internet usage, fax and copy machine usage? Those should all be free for him to run his business? If this is the case, may I come to the township and use the internet, phones, copy machine, ect? Lastly, if there is nothing wrong with Ringler working from the township hall for his own personal gain, WHY DOES HE CONTINUE TO DENY IT??? I think I know the answer. The answer is Ringler is not an honest person. You can’t expect full transparency when most of the people in charge are not trustworthy. Agreed?

  • http://www.facebook.com/#!/kbtonkin Kevin Tonkin

    People like you Dylan need a life. He did NOT use all those things, only his cell phone and own computer and cost the township NOTHING! You just dont get it. He did not have to be there at all!!!!! I do not have to defend Ringer one bit but I am sick and tired of people making a big deal of nothing – that being him helping while earning an honest living. I can not count how many times I did township work at my employers office – I didnt like it nor did my employer but it was the price we paid to serve and now the price Ringler pays for being dedicated to helping the township is this kind of treatment! Sorry Jim, unfortuantely no good deed goes unpunished.

  • dylan_c22

    I have struck a sore spot, Mr. Tonkin? You lash out at me for once again speaking the truth. Your claims of Ringler only using HIS cell phone and HIS computer are not true statements. The information that has been obtained by the Feedom of Information act, like phone records and fax records, prove your wrong. Your comment that I need to get a life is comical to me. I do have a life, sir, and I am quite happy with it. And you know what? It is also an HONEST life. Not one that is skewed with secrecy, phony records, and strong arm tactics. I understand that Ringler did not HAVE to be there. If Mr. Myers was so incapable of supervising the township, than the township board should have been open about it and had a deputy supervisor appointed until he could do his job. Sorry again for using common sense and asking for people to be held responsible for the job they do and get paid by people’s taxes to do. The people on the board under their own free will become public figures. This means they are now held to a higher standard and need tpo be honest. If they can’t handle being honest or the public looking into their actions, than they need to leave. Do i really need to get started on the thousand dollar alcohol fueled weekends at “township workshops” in Lansing and other cities that were paid for by the township residents? Do you think the tax payers would be ok with that if it was common knowledge? The Freedom of Information Act is such a beautiful thing, eh Kev?

  • Dave Fisher

    Dylan, you seem awful well versed on the FOIA and such, You one of the nameless folks out putting anonymous letters in paperboxes? I never noticed any stink, headlines, lawsuits, or antics until Mr. Kidwell showed up.

    Come to think of it all this anonymous crap arrived with him too. Who wants his own police dept? and the majority on the board doesn’t want the responsibility or legal liability that would come with it. False arrests, battery, and harassment suits cost too!

    Next thing ya know Kidwell will be finding money somewhere to have more for police. I think the sheriff is doing a great job compared to previous twp dept. There is a Geputy named Mann that is a great guy and always around patrolling.

    Too much slandering people in office that do and have done many good and great things. Kidwell wanted his daughter on the payroll and he has a LARGE family……..

  • dylan_c22

    Thanks, Vern, for the compliment of my FOI knowledge. I would hope that nobody would consider a tax payer who uses his right to FOI information to be a problem. No, I am not putting any letters in anybodys paper boxes. Now, as far as your assumption that there was never any “stink, headlines, lawsuits, or antics until Mr. Kidwell showed up,” is probably a fairly accurate statement. Does that make it a logical one, though? Has Mr. Kidwell been sued or broke the law on anything at the township? Not to my knowledge. The problem people like yourself have is that you are too blinded to see the truth that has been coming to light since Kidwell became Supervisor. There is now accountability. Has Kidwell been perfect? I don’t think so. Has he worked honestly and with the best interest of tax payer money in mind, absolutely. I agree with you, and I believe Kidwell has said it before, the County has done a pretty decent job providing police protection. Certainly better than the old township police department. At a cost of around $2500 a day we are paying the county for police coverage, in addition to the tax money we already pay to Berrien County’s general fund, is there a cheaper option? The old township police department failed because the township board, which still has four of them from the township police department days, did not manage it properly. Kidwell is simply presenting the board with other options to try to save some money with reagrds to police protection. Your comment about Kidwell having is daughter as deputy supervisor and wanting her on the payroll is not really relevant at all. Is that any different than the township attorney being Durm-Hiatt’s niece? Is Kidwell’s daughter doing anything like intimadating people liek Ringler is? Is she calling secret meetings or paying for work to be done at Morris Farms for her own personal gain? You know the answer is no. The same can’t be said about your buddy, James Ringler, now can it? STOP BEING AFRAID OF TRANSPARANCY!

  • Dave Fisher

    Now Dylan

    It seems you may be making a few ASSumptions. First, ASSuming Mr. Ringler is my “buddy” not the case. Second, a taxpayer exercising ANY right I have no problem with at all.
    Third, I’m no attorney but it seems the “press release” was walking an awful fine line and close to an opening for a slander suit, just my opinion. Not sure what the statute of limitations is on such things, maybe you can enlighten me. Fourth, there used to be a police force in Howard Twp too. They now contract with Cass co. for police protection. Maybe the people ELECTED as sheriff should be doing the policing as there is a structure already in place to take care of that. If the TWP. hadn’t have had to have their own force years ago that historically had plenty of “issues” the sheriff would have been doing it all along at a cost neither of us can give accurately.

    Not sure any TWP board is QUALIFIED to oversee police but I guess they are a handy place to lay blame in this instance. I saw the old force in action or inaction rather and the oats that have already been through the horse always come a little cheaper!

    Now I’m not here saying that everything has always been perfect before or nowadays. I have been around enough to know the “they are all bad” approach at describing the “four” that have experience that may not see things the way Kidwell wants things is all bad either. Checks and balances it’s called I believe. Every time there is change there is a certain amount of “tuition” let’s say that is paid while someone adapts to their new responsibilities. The taxpayers are paying their share while folks are learning “on the job”. Tact is a great tool while stimulating change, maybe “your buddy” (Kidwell) could be more efficient with everyone’s time and resources exercising a little of it.

    As far as transparency, I’m all for it! Just remember it is a two way mirror and there are some that can see the woods through the trees. Jim (Kidwell) is a good guy and I honestly believe has the best intentions, it’s just trains don’t make right turns. They go around wide curves.

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