A longtime Fresno city employee has filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against the city, accusing his former boss, public utilities director Thomas Esqueda, of firing him in March 2017 so a younger, less experienced employee could replace him.
Douglas Hecker, 54, also contends in his Fresno Superior Court lawsuit that Esqueda, who now works for Fresno State, allegedly pressured him into signing off on construction projects, creating a risk to public safety and in violation of the city's Municipal Code.
In addition, Hecker said, city officials named Georgeanne White to assistant public utilities director in July 2016, even though she has neither experience in public utilities nor an engineering background. White, who was chief of staff to Mayors Alan Autry and Ashley Swearengin, announced her retirement from public utilities last October.
In March this year, Esqueda, who oversaw Fresno's massive sewer, water and trash systems, left the city to accept a water leadership job at Fresno State. Because the lawsuit pertains to a personnel-related matter, Esqueda referred questions to the city.
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City spokesman Mark Standriff said Fresno has a policy against commenting on pending or ongoing lawsuits.
Hecker and his wife, Lynette Hecker, are represented by Fresno attorneys Kevin Little and Robert Fuentes. They are seeking unspecified damages for discrimination and retaliation, as well as loss of consortium.
The lawsuit gives only the Heckers and their lawyers' account of what happened, but puts a spotlight on a high-profile city department that has been dealing with other lawsuits involving water capacity fees opposed by developers, and northeast Fresno water problems.
The lawsuit says:
Hecker worked for the city for 27 years and was never written up or reprimanded. His lowest performance evaluation was "Superior."
In 2015, Esqueda instructed Hecker to train a recently hired senior engineering technician. Esqueda told Hecker, who at the time was also a senior engineering technician, that within two years the new hire should know everything Hecker had learned in nearly three decades of public service.
"Mr. Hecker was surprised by this comment," the lawsuit says. "He advised Mr. Esqueda that it would be impossible to accomplish this goal."
During this time, Esqueda promoted Hecker to "limited planning manager." In November 2016, Esqueda removed "limited" and promoted Hecker to planning manager.
The lawsuit says Hecker gave the new hire negative reviews during his six-month, nine-month and one-year evaluations because the new hire did not have a full understanding of city standards and specifications. Seeing the low marks, Esqueda "pressured Mr. Hecker to alter the evaluation to reflect more positively on (the new hire),'" the lawsuit says. But Hecker declined.
In response, Esqueda declined to sign off on the evaluations and never submitted them to human resources, in violation of city policies, the lawsuit says.
Upset with Hecker, Esqueda repeatedly told him that "he was paid too much, and that he could hire two younger people for the same amount and get more work out of them," the lawsuit says.
According to the lawsuit, Hecker also took exception to the hiring of White, as did other assistant directors in public utilities. When he asked why he or other qualified employees weren't promoted, he never received a satisfactory answer.
Hecker alleged that on several occasions Esqueda pressured him to sign off on construction projects before they were ready. Over Esqueda's objections, the lawsuit says, Hecker had asked the City Attorney's Office for advice on several projects.
Months before he was fired, Hecker said he informed Esqueda that he had planed to enroll in the city's Deferred Retirement Option Program, called DROP, which allows older employees to continue working while diverting pension payments to a supplemental retirement fund. He planned start in the program in October, but Esqueda fired him on March 14, 2017, the lawsuit says.
"Mr. Hecker was stunned. He was then escorted to his desk to retrieve his keys and phone and thereafter was escorted off the premises," the lawsuit says. "Mr. Hecker was not allowed to say goodbye to any of his longtime co-workers, whom he considered close family."