Judge sides with city in suit brought by golf pro
By Craig Howard
Mollie Thola was a well-liked golf professional at the Trailhead at Liberty Lake Golf Course, generating enthusiasm in the city-owned venue while coordinating and teaching an extensive schedule of lessons.
Things turned sour, however, when the city reached an impasse with the longtime golf pro over her management of the Trailhead pro shop, leading to Thola's dismissal and a drawn out legal battle than finally reached a conclusion this fall.
When former Mayor Wendy Van Orman announced at the end of 2010 that Thola would be let go as a result of municipal budget cuts, a community uproar followed. Thola - originally hired by Mayor Steve Peterson in August 2002 - was eventually brought back as an hourly employee, resuming her duties in the early part of 2011.
In June of 2011, Thola was fired by the city over concerns regarding inefficient management of Trailhead's pro shop. Afterward, she filed a lawsuit, naming the city, former Community Development Director Doug Smith and Parks and Recreation Director Michelle Griffin in the dispute. Thola cited age and gender discrimination, hostile work environment, retaliation, defamation and failure to pay overtime wages in her suit.
This September, the case was finally resolved, with U.S. District Court Judge Thomas O. Rice siding with city, Smith and Griffin on their request for a summary judgment on all claims.
In his decision, Rice stated that "although she excelled in most areas of her job, the plaintiff found it difficult to manage the financial aspects of running the Trailhead Golf Shop."
Thola now works as the program director at the First Tee of Yakima. Calls from The Splash to Thola regarding the lawsuit and Rice's decision were not returned. The case is now beyond Thola's deadline to appeal.
City Administrator Katy Allen, who attended a number of depositions during the litigation, said the decision brings closure and means "the city can now move on."
"I thought the discussions between the city and our attorney and Mollie and her attorney vetted through a lot of the information," Allen said. "I'm glad to see the issue reviewed and have a decision made."
The order on the defendant's motion for summary judgment indicates that Thola struggled to produce accurate cash accounting and inventory records during the bulk of her tenure. By 2003, the Washington State Auditor's Office had inquired about the situation. In four subsequent years, the city was instructed by the state auditor to adhere to more rigorous procedures.
By 2010, the city was informed that the auditor would issue "adverse findings" if the city failed to improve its accuracy. Smith responded by directing the city treasurer to work with Thola on the financial aspects of her job, the latest in a series of attempts to improve the scenario at the pro shop.
By late 2010, the city was experiencing a budget shortfall. A community survey identified both Trailhead and the municipal library as the lowest non-essential funding priorities. The budget for 2011 included cuts at both venues, some of which were restored after negative feedback from citizens.
Peterson - who, in 2011, had begun his campaign to return as mayor - was among those to rally on Thola's behalf.
"Mollie did a good job during my first tenure," Peterson said. "When I was out of office, I lobbied to get her back."
When Thola was rehired, Smith rewrote the job description for the golf pro, adding increased financial management responsibilities. Griffin also emphasized that the cash accounting and inventory tracking "needed to be absolutely accurate" to avoid sanctions by the state auditor.
Rice's judgment states that "inaccuracies persisted" at the golf shop in 2011. In the court record, Thola acknowledged she "wasn't being successful" in the financial aspects of the position. Griffin, meanwhile, wrote up a business plan for Trailhead and moved her office to Trailhead in an effort to help Thola.
Prior to her termination, Thola was offered a reduced role by Van Orman that would have limited her duties to the golf side of the business. The transition would have resulted in a pay decrease. Thola declined and was fired not long afterward.
"Mollie was great with the public and great with the golf activities but this was about the pro shop and the financial issues," Allen said.