Henderson may have to pay in city attorney DUI case

Henderson could be forced to pay City Attorney Elizabeth Quillin more than $300,000 should the City Council decide to fire her over her recent scrape with the law.

Quillin's employment contract with the city entitles her to one year of salary and benefits if she is dismissed for anything short of a felony conviction.

She faces three misdemeanor charges, including drunken driving, in connection with a car accident in the middle of the workday that landed her in the Henderson jail.

Police said her blood-alcohol level was 0.281 percent, 3½ times the legal limit, on May 23 when she crashed her Lexus and then nearly ran over a woman who stopped to help her.

Quillin has pleaded not guilty to the charges, but she issued a public apology and entered an alcohol treatment program shortly after the incident.

The 51-year-old makes $190,000 a year, plus benefits.

Her future will be decided by the five-member City Council, which is in charge of appointing the city attorney, city manager and city clerk in Henderson.

Mayor Andy Hafen stopped short of proclaiming that Quillin's time with the city is over, but he said it is "troubling" to have a city attorney accused of a crime that her office is responsible for prosecuting.

"That makes it awkward," Hafen said.

No council action has been scheduled regarding Quillin, and none is likely to be taken as long as she remains in alcohol treatment, city spokesman Bud Cranor said.

Quillin is using her accrued sick leave and vacation time, Cranor said.

For privacy reasons, he said he could not comment further about her case.

Henderson hasn't had much luck with employment contracts lately. In February, the city was forced to pay almost $1.3 million to former City Manager Mary Kay Peck after an arbitrator upheld her breach-of-contract claim.

Peck spent 18 months as Henderson's first female city manager before the City Council fired her with cause on April 14, 2009.

She promptly sued, alleging that the city did not have sufficient cause to dismiss her under the terms of her contract.

Quillin's agreement opens up similar possibilities, Hafen said. "If we tried to terminate with cause, I'm afraid we'd be in for more litigation like we saw with Mary Kay Peck."

He said he thinks the Quillin matter will have to be resolved with settlement talks "between attorneys."

For decades, Henderson didn't enter into contracts with its three appointed officials.

City Human Resources Director Fred Horvath said Peck was the first to negotiate such an employment agreement.

Today, Quillin and current City Manager Mark Calhoun are under contract, but City Clerk Sabrina Mercadante is not.

Contracts are standard practice in the corporate world, where they are used to lure and retain top-level executives, but they could become a thing of the past in Nevada's second-largest city.

"I think the city can manage quite well with a citywide severance agreement" instead, Horvath said.

Councilwoman Gerri Schroder said that doing away with employment contracts is not something the council has discussed but that she certainly would entertain the idea.

"It's something we have to think about," she said.

Schroder was on the council in 2009, and the fallout from her vote to fire Peck was used against her in an attack ad when she ran for re-election this year.

She said that if the city is going to continue using employment agreements, she wants to make sure those contracts are "not going to harm anyone."

Hafen was more adamant.

"Quite frankly, I don't want to enter into any more employment contracts with our appointed officials," he said. "I'm just not sure they've worked for us."

Quillin has hired John Marchiano to represent her in her criminal case and in any negotiations with the city. Marchiano served as Henderson city attorney in the early 1980s and is now one of the most well-known private lawyers in the city.

He is a regular at council meetings, where he frequently represents developers and others with business to conduct in Henderson.

Quillin is in the third year of her three-year contract with the city.

Her 15-page employment agreement states that the city must pay her 12 months of salary and benefits if she is "terminated not for cause."

No such severance payment is required if the city has cause to fire her, which the agreement narrowly defines as any felony conviction or intentional breach of the contract.

When asked about the specific language in the contract, Cranor would only say that it makes for "an interesting framework in which to operate."

Both Cranor and Horvath declined to speculate on how -- or how soon -- the city might act in the Quillin matter. It's not up to them, for one thing.

"Ultimately, this is a person who is appointed by the council," Cranor said. "We'll follow their direction."

Contact reporter Henry Brean at hbrean@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0350.