KENNEWICK -- Joetta Rupert says she made an honest mistake, but directors of the Kennewick Irrigation District are ready to fire her for taking sick leave to attend a civil trial related to injuries she received in an automobile accident.
Rupert, who was placed on paid administrative leave Tuesday as manager of KID's realty division, told KID board members she misinterpreted the agency's employee handbook as allowing the sick leave.
"I want to clear up this misunderstanding. My personal reputation is very important to me," Rupert said Thursday at a special board meeting called so she could tell her side of the story.
"I'm in shock this has gotten to this level," said Rupert, a seven-year KID employee who is paid nearly $80,000 a year.
Brian Iller, KID's attorney, said district officials were concerned that by claiming sick leave, Rupert would accumulate enough vacation time to qualify for an end-of-year vacation cash-out. District policy allows employees to cash out vacation if it is more than 160 hours.
The board members met in open session at Rupert's request and came to no decision after more than an hour of her testimony.
Rupert, who ended up winning the civil lawsuit related to her automobile accident but gained only enough in damages to pay her attorney, told the board she had made no attempt to conceal her reason for needing the days off during the first week of July.
"My first call was to board president John Jaksch to inform him how long I'd be gone," Rupert said.
She said she also notified board member Gene Huffman, who is president of the realty committee, and KID manager Chuck Freeman.
"I was up-front about it," Rupert said.
"I did everything in my power to be openly transparent so everybody would know what I was doing," she said.
But Rupert said after she already had marked her time sheet with sick time for those days off, Huffman came to her July 15 and asked how she was recording her time off.
"I said I used sick time and asked if there an issue with that. He said no," Rupert said.
Later, after Freeman raised the issue, Rupert said she agreed to change the time off to reflect personal days and vacation time. But by then the payroll already was in process, which meant her mistake was on the records.
Rupert said she assumed the blunder had been fixed until she learned at the board's July 20 meeting that her job was on the line.
Board member Patrick McGuire noted that Rupert had access to the district policy about sick leave, and Jaksch said she did not turn in her office keys immediately as requested when she was escorted off KID property Tuesday afternoon.
That prompted Freeman to have the locks on the office building changed.
Rupert, who has since turned in the keys, said she had misplaced them at home.
Attorney Robert Schultz, who represented Rupert in her personal injury lawsuit, spoke on her behalf Thursday, saying her interpretation of the district's sick leave policy was reasonable.
"It is not bad faith for her to interpret the policy the way she did. Her absence was due to an injury," Schultz said.
Board members did not discuss the issue after Rupert presented her case, but decided to postpone further comment and possible action to a later meeting.