Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
A former city of Albuquerque traffic engineer has filed a whistleblower lawsuit claiming he was fired for raising concerns about the Albuquerque Rapid Transit project, and instances when the city failed to follow traffic safety rules and ordinances.
John Kolessar, who headed the city’s traffic division, alleges in his lawsuit that he was labeled a “problem employee” when he “pushed back” against city decisions that violated national standards for traffic signs and lighting.
The lawsuit says Kolessar was fired in November 2017 “for using his work vehicle for personal errands and other minor personnel infractions,” which it deems retaliation for his “complaints about the City’s disregard for traffic safety and other matters of public concern.”
The lawsuit, filed Friday in state District Court in Albuquerque, names the city of Albuquerque and two of Kolessar’s then-supervisors inside the Department of Municipal Development.
The city did not comment on the lawsuit, but issued a short statement Friday.
“This is active litigation, but it is the City’s position that Mr. Kolessar was terminated with cause,” city spokeswoman Jessie Damazyn wrote in an email.
Kolessar’s attorney, Vincent J. Ward, declined comment Friday.
Kolessar, who worked with the city for nine years, had repeatedly complained to superiors about the city’s failure to follow safety rules and ordinances, including those outlined in the Federal Highway Administration’s Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), according to the lawsuit.
“On numerous occasions, including in the context of ART, Mr. Kolessar’s supervisors directed him to disregard MUTCD safety requirements, especially related to the placement and use of traffic signals and signs,” the suit states. “The City often bypassed the MUTCD for political and budgetary reasons.”
The suit says Kolessar “submitted an extensive list of concerns” about ART, contending that it included unwarranted traffic signals, had “dangerous and inconvenient U-turn configurations,” eliminated safe parking and created traffic conditions that would harm local businesses.
The $135 million ART project – which remains inoperable more than six years after the city began design work – features a series of bus-only lanes down the middle of Central Avenue. Officials initially planned to launch it in late 2017, but problems with the original buses have delayed service. The city has ordered a new fleet from a different company and has said ART should start running at some point this winter.
Kolessar’s concerns went beyond ART, according to the suit. It says he had also complained about other issues, including unprotected crosswalks, signals going up at intersections without engineering studies and disregarding a recommendation to replace 16 Downtown signals with four-way stop signs.
The suit says that in response to one Kolessar email outlining his concerns in the department, a supervisor wrote, “You have a habit of citing reduction in accidents, personal injury, property damage liability or increases in traffic flow to support your self-serving generalizations.”
The suit claims Kolessar faced retaliation, including a work schedule change.
At one point, the suit says, an outside investigator hired by the city put a GPS tracker on Kolessar’s official vehicle and found “a small number of minor detours” during work hours, “but no serious misconduct.”
Kolessar is seeking double back pay and associated benefits, reinstatement, attorney’s fees, interest and undisclosed punitive damages.