The Town of Stevensville recently received the results of an investigation into a complaint filed by Town Clerk Audree Tribbensee alleging bullying, harassment, and creation of a hostile work environment by members of the Town Council and former mayor Jim Crews. Tribbensee’s complaint was filed with Mayor Brandon Dewey on October 4, 2018 and Malin Stearns Johnson from the Missoula-based law firm Johnson and Johnson Law, was hired to conduct an independent investigation of the allegations. Mayor Dewey received the report on November 16 and the contents of the report will be discussed at a special council meeting set for Thursday, December 6 at 7 p.m. at town hall.
As part of her investigation, Johnson interviewed Town Clerk Audrey Tribbensee, Council President Bob Michalson, Mayor Brandon Dewey, Utility Clerk Denise Philley, Police Clerk Jenelle Berthoud, Treasurer April Van Tassel, Council members Robin Holcomb and Stacie Barker and Town Attorney Brian West. Johnson notes that in the course of her investigation additional allegations of retaliation were received, enlarging the scope of the investigation. She also notes in the report that during the investigation, “it also became clear that the Town faced problems with communication, environment, and human resource policies,” and that these would be addressed as well.
In summation, Johnson found that the allegations of bullying against the three Town Council members and Crews were “not sustained,” primarily because the activities of bullying and harassment, although defined in the Town’s Personnel Policy Manual and training in the issue is prescribed, the defined activity is not explicitly prohibited.
“Ms. Tribbensee’s Complaint does not cite, and this investigator is not aware of, any legal prohibition against bullying. Ms. Tribbensee cites Wikipedia in her Complaint as stating that ‘workplace bullies often operate within the established rules and policies of their organization and their society.’ This is an accurate statement. The investigator is unaware of any legal or policy prohibition against bullying that applies in this case to protect Ms. Tribbensee or any other employee in the Stevensville Town government,” wrote Johnson in her report.
The harassment allegations were a little more difficult to parse out. There is state law and town policy against harassment, but both require a harassment complaint to show that the harassment is “based on a protected class status,” such as gender or race. Johnson states that while some of Tribbensee’s complaints allege sexual and gender-based harassment, and one incident involves a race-based comment, most of Tribbensee’s complaint alleges bullying and harassment of “a more general nature (i.e., not based on protected class status).”
“In other words, Ms. Tribbensee’s Complaint mostly alleges general bullying and general harassment, which are not barred by law or Town of Stevensville Policy,” states the report.
In Johnson’s analysis, the claims that Tribbensee made that could be considered class status protected did not actually rise to that level.
In terms of race discrimination, for instance, Tribbensee alleged that following a Council meeting Michalson had entered her office and asked her, “Are you tribal?” Tribbensee took it as discriminatory. Johnson states that although Tribbensee took offense at the term, “there is no reason to find that ‘tribal’ is an objectively offensive term, particularly when raised by a tribal member.” Michalson is as a member of the Fort Belknap Tribe.
“Although Ms. Tribbensee was deeply offended, it does not appear this was a racially discriminatory remark. At most, it was inappropriate for Mr. Michalson to be discussing issues of race in the workplace,” wrote Johnson.
Relative to sex discrimination and sexual harassment, Tribbensee alleged that when introduced to her husband, whose first name is Robert, that Michalson, whose first name is also Robert, asked “Does your middle name begin with a J?” to which Mr. Tribbensee also said yes.
“Ms. Tribbensee says Mr. Michalson then said, ‘maybe we are sleeping with the wrong wives.’ She says she was deeply offended, shocked and embarrassed by his comment,” wrote Johnson. Tribbensee also added many other comments by Michalson and others that seemed that she took as gender-related discrimination.
Michalson denied making the “sleeping with the wrong wives” statement, according to Johnson, but she wrote, “the investigator believes Ms. Tribbensee and the multiple eye witnesses who state they heard him say it.”
“Mr. Michalson’s comment was objectively inappropriate and Ms. Tribbensee’s offense seems justified. However, it does not appear to rise to the level of sexual harassment in the workplace.” Johnson points out that it is not clear how many of the other comments about the “ladies in the office” are attributable to Michalson and in an any case, she states in the report, “these comments, though arguably demeaning and inappropriate, do not likely rise to the level of sexual harassment or sexual discrimination.”
Johnson did 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. There is no evidence that Ms. Holcomb engaged in conduct that could be construed as bullying or harassment.”
Johnson went on to note that many of the bullying and harassment allegations are specifically against “former mayor, now citizen, Jim Crews.”
According to Johnson’s summary of interviews with the Town staff, every one of them had trouble with Crews.
Tribbensee, in her interview as summarized by Johnson, describes herself as being terrified of Jim Crews, citing examples of him following staff on personal time and in the office.
Mayor Brandon Dewey said he thought previous mayor Jim Crews was a bully, so he decided to run against him for mayor and won. Dewey said that Crews followed him around during his off hours when he was not working.
Utility Clerk Denise Philley, who has worked for the town for 10 years, said that Crews was a bully as mayor. She said he would bully everyone and that he frequently got in her face and yelled at her. She took a month off during his tenure to get personal counseling to deal with the stress. She said Crews still bullies everyone.
Philley told Johnson that Crews and Michalson often act together to bully or degrade women in the office. She said they come in the office and have no respect for the clerks’ roles or their space, they cross their arms, force the clerks to do research for them, and sometimes just drop the question. Philley says they are really just bothering people.
Britnee Rhodes, the General Services Clerk, told Johnson that Crews has followed her around town at least three times, and one of those times Michalson was with him. Rhodes said she was afraid of Crews. She especially notes that she has observed Crews being unkind to Utility Clerk Philley.
Police Clerk and Evidence Tech Jenelle Berthoud also feels bullied by Mr. Crews. She says Crews calls frequently, without identifying himself, to report minor issues to the police department, such as a car parked the wrong way. When he calls she feels he is rude to her. She told Johnson that if she drives in a town vehicle for some reason, Crews either follows her around town or calls to ask why she was driving that vehicle.
Town Finance Officer April Van Tassel also feels bullied by Crews. She told Johnson that he contacts her via email, and is the only citizen to do that. She said he does it approximately every other day. She told Johnson that Crews was always correcting staff and she forwards these on to the mayor for response. She said that Crews would ask her to do research on issues but then would fail to show up for scheduled appointments. She thinks he did it to harass her. She told Johnson that she felt bullied by him and felt he was a bad town leader.
In her report, Johnson notes that many of the bullying and harassment allegations are specifically against Crews.
“While the Council certainly should not encourage harassing action by Mr. Crews (e.g., Mr. Michalson should not ride with Mr. Crews while he follows town employees), there is no reason for the investigator to attribute Mr. Crews’ conduct to anyone who works for or represents the Town government. Mr. Crews is a private citizen, so remedies for any harassment or bullying on his part would have to come from the police or through civil remedies, such as an order of protection,” states Johnson in the report.
When it came to the additional allegation of retaliation against an employee for filing a complaint, Johnson made it clear that Michalson had apparently violated the law and town policy and that he ought to apologize to Tribbensee for the infraction.
According to Johnson, in her interview with Michalson, he admitted approaching Tribbensee and telling her he hoped they could have better communication. He further admitted telling Tribbensee that she was a probationary employee and could be fired at any time, even for no reason. Michalson denied telling Tribbensee that she could be fired for filing a complaint.
“Mr. Michalson could not articulate any non-retaliatory reason for telling Ms. Tribbensee that she could be fired at any time; he merely said he was reminding her that she is probationary and that her job could be terminated at any time. He acknowledged that the timing of this warning appears retaliatory, yet he still could not state any legitimate reason for telling her that her job was in jeopardy,” wrote Johnson.
Tribbensee, in her interview, said that she told Michalson at the time that she thought his statement was retaliatory and he responded that he was just warning her.
The town’s policy does state explicitly that “no hardship, no loss or benefit, and no penalty may be imposed on an employee as punishment for…[f]iling…a bona fide complaint of discrimination or harassment.” The Manual further states: “Please report any retaliation to your supervisor, or the Mayor designee, within 10 calendar days of occurrence.” Johnson notes that under existing federal law, “an employer’s action constitutes retaliation if it would dissuade a reasonable person from complaining about discrimination or harassment and may include threats of termination.”
“Given the timing of his threat,” wrote Johnson, “it appears that Mr. Michalson retaliated against Ms. Tribbensee….” She notes that Tribbensee’s complaint was filed within the 10-day deadline established by policy, and states, “Mr. Michalson should promptly apologize to Ms. Tribbensee and make clear to her that she cannot, in fact, be terminated for filing a complaint. The Town should further take steps to ensure that Ms. Tribbensee is not further retaliated against, such as by being disciplined or terminated because of her complaint.”
In her analysis of the allegations concerning the general toxic work environment, Johnson found many of the complaints “inconsequential” but a few others she found to be “more serious.”
The more serious ones include certain emails from Michalson and Barker “that are clearly written in a tone that is outright hostile to either the Mayor or to staff,” wrote Johnson. She called the screenshots on Facebook posted by Michalson about Dewey “clearly inappropriate.”
“At times, Mr. Michalson and Ms. Barker’s behavior appears unjustifiably hostile and aggressive toward the Mayor and staff,” wrote Johnson.
Holcomb, in her interview, is reported to have said that everyone is a little bit to blame for the current bad situation, but she especially thinks the Mayor is to blame. She claims the Mayor is hostile and has been caught in several lies. Holcomb also believes the staff is to blame for the hostile environment. She feels the Council, by contrast, is polite. She also stated that she had never seen any behavior by anyone in the Stevensville town government that would constitute bullying, harassment, or discrimination.
Barker, in her interview, is reported to have stated that there were no problems in the town of Stevensville, “until Audree came along.” She also states that her understanding has been that Tribbensee is the only one in the clerk’s office (i.e., the only staff person) who has any complaints about communication. She, like Holcomb, also claims to have never witnessed any behavior in the Stevensville town government that could be characterized as harassment or bullying, or discrimination, although there have been communication problems.
Asked if anything could be done to help the situation, she said the Mayor could improve his communication. She states in her interview that there is nothing the Council could do better and she does not believe that the solution could or should start with the Council.
Johnson notes in her report that every witness interviewed other than Councilor Stacie Barker knows that Stevensville is a town government with a long history of communication problems.
“Nearly everyone interviewed agreed that some blame should be shared by all those involved in the current communication crisis, including the Town Council, the Mayor and staff. Only Stacie Barker seemed to think that she and the council could not improve their communication. The willingness of most parties to recognize their own role in the conflict and take strides toward fixing the situation was a positive aspect of this investigation. Ms. Barker’s insistence that the blame rests solely with the Mayor and staff, and that the Council had no room for improvement, was a great concern in this investigation. It appears Ms. Barker is overly reluctant to accept the existence of what all others agree is a toxic work environment that must promptly be remedied by action of the Council,” wrote Johnson.
She noted how all the staff and the Mayor had expressed some sentiment regarding the poor or toxic communication by Council. She states that the Councilmembers interviewed blamed the Mayor for most of the communication problems and the Mayor recognized that he had some responsibility. But the staff did not blame the Mayor.
“It appears [if] the Mayor can make some effort to improve his communication with the Council, that doing so will improve Council’s communication with the Mayor, and that these steps will improve working conditions for the staff,” wrote Johnson.
“This investigation revealed that nearly every employee interviewed believes the problem is poor – characterized as hostile, aggressive, tense, critical, and negative – communication by and between the Mayor, Council and staff.
“The communication situation in the Stevensville Town Government could reasonably be characterized as a situation so intolerable that a reasonable person could not be expected to endure it. If one or more individuals on staff decides to leave the Town and sue for constructive discharge, the Town is likely to face significant liability. This intolerable situation must be recognized by the Council and Mayor and remedied by immediate, conscious effort on the part of both the Council and Mayor to improve their communication with one another and with the staff,” concluded Johnson.
Johnson recommended that the Town consider instituting changes to its personnel policies involving bullying, harassment, and retaliation, including preventing bullying, possibly addressing non-protected class harassment, and providing time limits for complaints of bullying, harassment, and discrimination.
She further recommended that Michalson should promptly apologize to Audree Tribbensee for telling her that she was a probationary employee whose job could be terminated for any reason, and either stating or implying that she could be terminated for filing a valid harassment and discrimination complaint.
“Mr. Michalson must make it clear to Ms. Tribbensee that she cannot be terminated for filing a Complaint, and he must refrain from further acts of retaliation,” she wrote.
She recommends that the Town should implement frequent and regular mandatory training regarding workplace culture, including how to avoid bullying and harassment and how to create and maintain a healthy work environment.
“The Stevensville Town Council and Mayor should immediately focus efforts on positive and productive communication, including substance, tone, and body language – with each other and with staff – so the work environment does not continue to deteriorate, and instead improves, for the Town staff,” concludes the report.