Consideration and possible decision concerning the Mayor’s response and recommendation report regarding Stevensville Town Clerk Audree Tribbensee’s complaints of bullying and harassment was on the agenda for the Town Council’s December 6 special meeting, but it didn’t happen. Council member Stacie Barker objected and effectively squashed consideration of the agenda item.
After announcing her objection, Barker read a lengthy portion of Robert’s Rules of Order that she believed supported her action and allowed the blocking of the agenda item from any consideration at all.
“This is something that should be addressed alone with the employees,” said Barker. “This should not be public. It should be a closed meeting.”
Mayor Brandon Dewey disagreed and said that it was an issue that needed to be addressed and could not be taken off the agenda. He said the item could be tabled but it could not be removed. He said if it was not discussed then it would be on the next agenda and the next after that until it was considered.
Council member Robin Holcomb said that she would be for tabling it so that an attorney could be present, but no motion to that effect was made.
Council member Jerry Phillips said it was probably a good idea to have the town attorney present for the discussion.
“I know we have had closed meetings,” said Holcomb.
“It’s something that needs to be digested,” said Barker. “It is something that needs to be done, it needs to be addressed, but it’s not something that needs to be addressed tonight.”
Former council member Ray Smith said that the newspaper article on the report shows that it is the mayor’s communication problem.
“There really was nothing there,” he said. “It’s not the Council, it’s the Mayor.”
Jane Schutz said that she believed people deserve privacy.
Michael Sharkey said, “The horse is already out of the barn.” He said the staff has relinquished its right to privacy and the council doesn’t have a right to privacy unless there is a lawsuit going on.
With no further comment the council moved on to the next agenda item.
Mayor Dewey said later that he didn’t believe that Robert’s Rules of Order supports what Barker did in squashing any discussion of the agenda item.
“What she read to us does not apply to regular agenda items,” he said. “My understanding is that only applies to ‘consent agendas’.” He said that he didn’t press his point at the time in part because the item had already been placed on next Monday’s agenda and would be addressed at that time with the attorney being present.
The independent investigation conducted by Malin Stearns Johnson made four findings concerning the complaint:
1. Mrs. Tribbensee’s allegations of bullying and harassment against Town Council members Bob Michalson, Robin Holcomb, and Stacie Barker, and against citizen Jim Crews, are not sustained;
2. Mrs. Tribbensee’s supplemental allegation of retaliation for filing a complaint against Councilman Bob Michalson is sustained;
3. The investigation revealed a work environment that most staff perceive as toxic and intolerable and which, if not resolved, has the potential to result in liability to the Town in the form of a constructive discharge claim and possibly multiple such claims; and
4. The Town’s policies regarding bullying, harassment, discrimination, and retaliation are insufficient, both in how they are written and in how they are implemented.
Mayor Dewey’s response basically agrees with all Johnson’s findings except the first one. Johnson found that the allegations of bullying and harassment were not sustained. But she made that finding based primarily on the technical point that bullying is not prohibited in state law or in the Town’s rules. Although harassment is defined, she notes, only harassment “based on protected class status” such as gender or race discrimination is prohibited. General harassment is not, she said.
Johnson did go on to state, “It should be noted that, if bullying were effectively prevented by policy, it is at least arguable that Mr. Michalson’s words and actions, and occasional comments, emails, and body language by Ms. Barker, could meet the Town’s definition of bullying. The staff characterizes Mr. Michalson and Ms. Barker’s words and actions as intimidating and undermining. It is conceivable that reasonable minds could find that the Council violated its own personnel policies by allowing Mr. Michalson and Ms. Barker to speak to staff in a way the staff finds threatening and humiliating.”
In Mayor Dewey’s response, he agreed that incidents of bullying and harassment were occurring and adds, “The investigative report also reveals that a majority of the employees, and all of those interviewed, feel that the conduct and behavior of the subjects in the complaint is harassing in nature. They also describe the situations they find themselves in as intimidating and threatening.”
He disagrees with Johnson that there are no laws or rules prohibiting it and points to the Town’s policy concerning workplace violence.
The policy states in part:
Town of Stevensville is committed to preventing workplace violence and to maintaining a safe work environment. Town of Stevensville has adopted the following guidelines to deal with intimidation, harassment or other threats of or actual violence that may occur onsite or offsite during work-related activities.”
“All employees, citizens, vendors and business associates should be treated with courtesy and respect at all times.”
“Conduct that threatens, intimidates, or coerces another employee, a citizen, vendor or business associate will not be tolerated. Town of Stevensville resources may not be used to threaten, stalk or harass anyone at or outside the workplace, in person or via electronic communication such as email, social media, etc.”
“Based on the findings provided in the investigative report and Town policy,” the Mayor wrote, “the allegations and claims brought forward by Mrs. Tribbensee, as well as those accounts and instances provided by employee interviews and my own personal observations, are sustained under the Town’s Workplace Violence Policy.”
In his recommendations for action, Dewey again quotes the town’s personnel policy on workplace violence:
“Anyone found to be responsible for threats of or actual violence or other conduct that is in violation of these guidelines will be subject to disciplinary action up to and including termination of employment.”
“If a Town of Stevensville employee has violated this policy, such action may warrant disciplinary action, up to and including termination. If necessary or appropriate, the Town of Stevensville will notify the necessary law enforcement personnel and prosecute violators of Town of Stevensville Code.”
Dewey admits, though, that elected officials, including town council members, are not considered under the definition of an employee either by law or policy. But he argues that it is expected that if the town adopts a policy like the personnel policy that they will substantially comply with the policy where it deals with interpersonal interactions in a professional setting. Throughout the policy it is also implied that all members of the organization, and at times even citizens, comply with the personnel policy manual on one level or another.
State law, however, gives sole authority of discipline of council members to the Town Council. Dewey recommends that the Town Council take disciplinary action amongst their own body regarding the complaint filed.
“The action that the Council considers may or may not align with the personnel policy but should at the very least accurately reflect the values of positive human rights and of our community,” he wrote.
Dewey points out that the Council has not adopted any code of conduct or standards that could guide how council members interact with staff, the mayor and themselves. He states that they should be held to the same standards as the staff. He recommends adoption of some standards of conduct that include disciplinary guidelines.
He also recommends that Jim Crews voluntarily adhere to the restricted access and discontinue his stalking behavior. He states that other remedies that were put in place should also remain in place.
Dewey states that, “the well-being of employees, volunteers, and elected/appointed officials should be the top concern for the organization going forward.” He states that the Personnel Policy requires immediate modification in order to address the deficiencies in human rights and serious liability to the town. He urges the Council to consider drafting and adopting an “actionable Code of Ethics.”
Additionally, he asks that the Council look at measures to address unreasonable harassing, bullying and intimidation on the part of citizens against town officials and staff members.
The mayor’s response to the report on the complaints was placed on the agenda for Monday, December 10.