ST. LOUIS — Dorothy Balaban stood up for what she thought was right and got fired.
But last week, Balaban, a former clerk for the Lincoln County (Mo.) Ambulance District, got a measure of satisfaction when a jury ruled she was fired, at least in part, because she talked to a reporter. Jurors awarded her $75,000.
The reporter she talked to was me, when I was covering public safety issues for the Post-Dispatch.
I felt terrible when she was dismissed, so I was glad to see her win her civil suit in federal court.
The victory was an important one for free speech, especially as it relates to public employees who blow the whistle on matters of public concern.
It also said a lot about the bravery and integrity of Balaban, 58, of Troy.
Balaban ran afoul of her employer when she was quoted in a story in March 2006 about Mia Farmer, the chief financial officer for the ambulance district.
Farmer made the news after she was placed on unpaid leave. She claimed she was being punished for trying to stop out-of-control spending on salaries and benefits by a board controlled by the union that represents the district’s paramedics.
The district denied the allegations and said Farmer had made costly accounting errors.
I called employees, trying to get to the heart of the matter. Balaban was the only one who would talk to me. She backed Farmer’s version. Other employees said they were afraid to go on the record because they feared retaliation at their jobs.
Before the article ran, I let Balaban know that she was the only one who defended Farmer. I asked her if she was sure she wanted me to use her name.
“Sometimes you just have to stand up for what’s right,” Balaban said.
Balaban said that Farmer had given her life to the district and what was happening to her was “outrageous.”
I thought that Balaban’s comments might get her a few dirty looks; I certainly didn’t think she’d lose her job.
When she called me a week later to say that she’d been fired, she seemed unshaken.
She told me she was raised in a small town in Indiana, with a strict upbringing by her mother, a farm girl, after her father died when she was only 3.
Balaban is ex-military, a retiree of the Air Force with a rank of E-7 master sergeant after putting in 23 years. She has been married for 27 years. She is a mother and a grandmother.
“You just know the difference between right and wrong, and when you see a wrong, you speak out about it,” she said. “I just did what was right.”
I’m sure Balaban’s decision to talk to me was difficult to live with in the coming months as she looked for a new job. She is the sole breadwinner in her family because her husband, Duane, also ex-Air Force, can’t work after heart and back surgeries.
Balaban said she filled out 48 job applications but got no offers. She said that she was honest on the job forms and said that she had been fired by her last employer.
“It was depressing, and it was embarrassing,” she said.
Finally, Farmer helped her get a job at the Lincoln County Medical Center as a clerk, working the 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift.
Balaban decided to sue the district in federal court to get back her lost wages and to clear her name.
I got a subpoena that asked me to turn over my notes from the interview. The district wanted to know which employees I had talked with or tried to interview.
The Post-Dispatch fought the request and won.
I was subpoenaed again when Balaban’s case came to trial, and I testified only about what Farmer and Balaban had told me.
The jury unanimously found in Balaban’s favor.
Robert J. Wulff, attorney for the district, declined to comment about the verdict or say whether the district planned to appeal.
Farmer told me outside the courtroom that she has a lawsuit pending against the district. She remains on unpaid leave. In the meantime, she is working as a 911 dispatcher for Lincoln County.
“I want to say thanks to Dorothy for standing up for me and the taxpayers of the district,” she said. “I’m happy that justice was done.”
Balaban said she left the courthouse feeling vindicated.
“What happened was not right, and I did what I should have done,” she said.Balaban got back her lost wages and her good name. In my book, she’s a hero.