Planning Commission investigation cost $42,000

WARREN — A report detailing an investigation into claims made by the director of the Trumbull County Planning Commission against other county officials cost $42,000, according to a bill provided Monday by Trumbull County Commissioner Frank Fuda.

The conflict the report details was primarily between Trish Nuskievicz, the director of the planning commission, and Randy Smith, Trumbull County engineer. Nuskievicz claimed in a letter to the board overseeing the planning commission that Smith and people acting in support of Smith’s goals created a hostile work environment by undermining her.

Smith filed a lawsuit in July against Nuskievicz and her wife, Heidi Nuskievicz, claiming the two defamed him with the complaint and public statements as the conflict unfolded.

The $42,000 report released by the board in March failed to come to a definitive conclusion about the validity of Nuskievicz’s claims. Nuskievicz was on paid leave from her position and is now on unpaid leave.

A judge overseeing the civil defamation case between the parties dismissed the counterclaim filed by Heidi Nuskievicz that claimed Smith was abusing the court’s processes by filing the lawsuit in the first place. Heidi Nuskievicz’s counterclaim was dismissed because she could not prove the lawsuit was filed to accomplish “revenge and retribution,” Visiting Judge Patricia Cosgrove wrote.

Cosgrove decided also to dismiss Smith’s claim the couple engaged in a civil conspiracy to violate his rights. Smith would have had to prove the Nuskieviczs maliciously worked together to perform an unlawful act to cause injury to Smith with their statements to prove a civil conspiracy, Cosgrove wrote. But Smith couldn’t prove any harm, injury or damages as a result of the alleged conspiracy, the document states.

The only remaining question in the case is Smith’s original claim of defamation and motions to compel answers to questions that arose in discovery. A hearing is scheduled for June 28 before Cosgrove.

The $42,000 report describes failures in communication and a reluctance to repair working relationships between Nuskievicz and Smith, but it falls short of offering a definitive conclusion about the validity of the claims.

“Microaggressions” between Trish Nuskievicz and numerous other officials seem to be the root of deteriorating relationships, and little problems — like not being invited to a press conference or not inviting someone to a meeting — escalated, permanently scarring relationships, the report finds.

The investigation focused on interviews with people who worked closely with Nuskievicz, but few witnesses close to the engineer or commissioners contributed to the majority of the report.

The investigator, hired through the county’s liability insurance provider, didn’t follow up on a variety of “new threads” raised in the interviews, the report states.

Trish Nuskievicz states in her July letter the issues led to an increasingly stressful environment that prevented her from doing her job. She told the investigator she believed resistance she began to receive and Smith’s eventual reliance on attorneys to communicate with her was the result of “politics and (Smith’s) perception that she was questioning his authority, power or expertise,” the report states.

Smith has denied the claims and said he had difficulty working with Nuskievicz, but did not retaliate against her because of it.

Commissioner Mauro Cantalamessa, a member of the planning commission board, said stronger administrative attention and oversight is necessary to “root out” personnel issues before “they become toxic.”

Personnel issues should be worked out before they develop into problems that require “urgent attention” and the board should be working to create “a positive work environment where our employees can flourish,” Cantalamessa said.