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Fired Safety Zone Director Sues for Back Pay, Reinstatement

Sept. 4, 2007 — A lawsuit in U.S. District Court pits former Safety Zone Director Iris Kern against seven of the organization's board members who fired her at the beginning of this year.
Kern claims the organization owes her $170,511 plus interest in back pay, because it failed to fund her full salary of $60,000 a year for all but three of the years since 1994. She also wants her job back, according to the suit. Kern got fired Jan. 10. (See “Safety Zone Board of Directors Severs Ties With Founder Iris Kern.”)
The suit, filed Aug. 9, was made public Tuesday after all the defendants were served. Kern referred questions to her attorney, St. Thomas-based Karin A. Bentz.
"The big problem is they didn't have the power to let her go," Bentz said.
The suit claims the board failed to follow its bylaws in both firing Kern and hiring her replacement. Current Director Shelley Williams said she could not comment because the suit is pending.
The suit claims Kern fired Williams from her job as office administrator because she was habitually tardy and failed to provide her Social Security number, references or a resume. The suit also claims Williams misrepresented her position to funding sources.
In January, Williams said the board fired Kern so the Safety Zone could maintain credibility and meet contractual requirements, and it had no choice but to sever ties with Kern. At that time, Williams mentioned several events leading up to Kern's departure, including grant money lost because the Safety Zone repeatedly failed to follow proper procedures.
The suit names as defendants board members Joyce Horn, Delores Powell, Leslie Smith, Terri Lamb, Delrise Varlack, Marjorie Sprauve, and Christine Barbich.
Barbich, reached at home on St. John, said she could not comment.
Kern founded the Safety Zone in 1994 with the help of former St. John resident Peter Keen, who donated $120,000 and the land for Lucy's Place shelter, according to the suit.
It alleges that Kern got no help from the board in managing the agency's finances, so she was forced to handle that detail while also providing counseling. The situation began to "unravel" when Kern learned that an office worker had lied about making payments to the tax and Social Security systems for employees, the suit claims.
According to the suit, the Internal Revenue Service threatened criminal prosecution against the Safety Zone. Kern immediately fired the worker, then hired Williams, the suit says.
Kern was given half an hour to vacate her office, and she has not been allowed to return to get her personal belongings, the suit alleges. It also says Kern suffered emotional stress because of the board's actions.
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