New allegations emerge as city defends itself against fired head engineer's $1.5M lawsuit

Former Windsor commissioner of infrastructure services Chris Nepszy speaks at a environment, transportation & public safety standing committee in 2023. (City of Windsor - image credit)
Former Windsor commissioner of infrastructure services Chris Nepszy speaks at a environment, transportation & public safety standing committee in 2023. (City of Windsor - image credit)

A fired city engineer suing for wrongful dismissal says his boss told him that "Windsor culture equated to keeping the mayor and his friends happy" shortly after being hired, and says it was reinforced during monthly one-on-one meetings.

But the City of Windsor claims those meetings with chief administrative officer Onorio Colucci were because Chris Nepszy's "unpreparedness and lack of knowledge" about city projects frustrated city staff and councillors, and that ultimately led to his firing.

These are the latest claims made in a battle of court filings stemming from Nepszy's $1.5-million wrongful dismissal lawsuit. In his statement of claim, Nepszy alleged "top-down corruption" inside city hall that included improper and unethical demands from Mayor Drew Dilkens, certain councillors and city staff.

In a statement of defence filed this week, the city says Nepszy's "sensationalized" allegations are baseless and "deliberately inflammatory" to embarrass the city, its senior leadership team and its elected officials.

None of the allegations have been proven in court.

The allegations from Nepszy include hiding costs related to Windsor's legacy beacon streetcar project, requests from councillors to waive parking tickets, and politically motivated decisions about infrastructure projects.

Nepszy was hired as Windsor's commissioner of infrastructure services on Sept. 7, 2021, after a recruiting firm recommended him as one of two candidates, according to the city's statement of claim.

He was fired on Nov. 15, 2023, by Dilkens under new legislation that gives mayor's in certain Ontario cities the power to hire and fire people in management positions.

Monthly one-on-one meetings

In its statement of defence, the city claims Nepszy was fired "due to significant and mounting performance concerns that were shared by senior administrative staff and virtually all members of council."

The city denies Nepszy's claim that Colucci asked him in almost every formal and informal meeting "whether he was keeping the mayor happy."

It states that Colucci, who returned as interim CAO from retirement after his replacement Jayson Reynar was dismissed, met with Nepszy on April 8, 2022, to address "unsatisfactory work performance and lack of responsiveness to members of city council and senior administration."

The city claims Nepszy ignored city council and considered them to be a distraction, resulting in monthly one-on-one meetings with Colucci "for corrective action to be taken."

Nepszy, however, says those claims are baseless and contradict "consistent positive feedback and excellent performance reviews he received throughout his employment."

In a court filing in response to the city's statement of defence obtained by CBC News, Nepszy says the April meeting with Colucci was about "his relationship with the mayor and the need for him to follow the Windsor way."

It adds that the meeting was to reinforce that Windsor culture was about "keeping the mayor and his friends happy," advice previous CAO Reynar gave him when Nepszy was first hired.

The city claims the monthly meetings were to improve Nepszy's responsiveness to city leadership and elected officials while addressing his "unpreparedness and lack of knowledge in answering questions both at city council meetings and in other forums."

Nepszy says those meetings were focused "almost exclusively on relationships with the mayor and council, and ensuring that this inappropriate, unique 'Windsor culture' was maintained."

Conflict over role in development project

In its statement of defence, the city outlined a time Nepszy brought forward "troubling news" that a key development area critical to hitting Windsor's housing goals would need "upwards of $38 million" in sewer upgrades that would take years to complete.

A week after hearing the "devastating, shocking, and completely unexpected" update, the court document says, Dilkens asked senior members of the provincial government for money to address the issue.

Nepszy requested a meeting days later and "in a complete reversal of his previous assessment… declared that everything was OK with the area in question, and all development could proceed without any additional funds or solutions."

"(Nepszy) showed no regard for the gravity of his mistake, the embarrassment he caused the city in its relationship with the provincial government, nor his complete lack of understand of his responsibilities for the city's sewage planning," according to the statement of defence.

Two months later, Nepszy was fired.

But Nepszy's response filed to court this week said his actions, alongside his engineering team, saved the project by discovering flaws in a previously approved process used to determine sewer capacity.

Team rewrote legacy beacon report 

"Nepszy and his team were devastated that the project could not continue, so they spent hours combing the model line by line and node by node" before finding flaws in the model that, when fixed, showed the project could proceed.

His response states the model was developed before he started working at the city and that "to do a full review of an existing, approved and accepted model that was relied on by the city for many years… was a large undertaking that should not have been necessary."

The city also denies Nepszy's allegations that he was asked to cover up costs for the legacy beacon project on Windsor's riverfront, saying that "the entire funding process was transparent, publicly reviewed, and ultimately approved by city council."

However, in Nepszy's response to the statement of claim, it's alleged that a team led by Colucci "worked many days, strategizing and rewriting" a report about the beacon project so that it would be discussed in-camera, without public debate, and be strategically worded to hide actual costs.

The suit alleges that Nepszy was forced to approve an unscheduled road rehabilitation project in the ward of Coun. Ed Sleiman — who the suit calls "a longtime supporter of the mayor."

What happened with Erskine Street

In its statement of defence, the city outlines how in the fall of 2021, Erskine Street was "in desperate need for restoration" after being assessed as a deficient road for 15 years.

Sleiman advocated to have it put on the proposed repair list during a meeting with the mayor, who then told the CAO to put it on the list for council's review.

In December 2021, council approved moving money from the approved road rehabilitation budget to allow for work on Erskine because costs would be lowered if it were done alongside a previously approved sewer project nearby, according to Nepszy's statement of claim.

The city denies that adding the street to the rehabilitation list or performing the work was improper, and says the work was completed "in accordance with the city's approved budget."

In Nepszy's court filed response, he alleges that this political influence forced him to justify Erskine Street jumping the queue as his choice.

Seeking $1M in damages

"His understanding was that this practice was done on previous occasions, as if the city engineer was the one pushing for the inclusion of a road, so the mayor and councillors could avoid allegations of bias and corruption," read the response filed on his behalf.

When he asked then Reynar what to do if someone asked him why Erksine was on the list, he should respond "that he was directed to place this road in the budget list."

"CAO Reynar acknowledged that this was the typical strategy for how the mayor worked on these projects to ensure that his hands appeared clean."

The city is asking the court to dismiss the action against them and order Nepszy to pay for costs.

Nepszy is seeking $1 million in damages, plus a remuneration package commensurate to his role as commissioner of infrastructure services and city engineer.