County Floodplain Administrator Brian Wilkinson was told to turn in his office keys last Friday after the County Commissioners voted unanimously to terminate his employment effective immediately. The decision came after a few hours of open discussion about a recent complaint lodged against Wilkinson by another employee and the subsequent investigation by the commissioners. Wilkinson waived his right to privacy and the discussion was held in public.
Commissioner Jeff Burrows began by noting that the Commissioners had received a complaint from an employee that Wilkinson was angry, aggressive, interruptive, and was creating an “intolerably hostile” work environment.
The complaint alleged instances of the use of vulgar language by Wilkinson in the workplace when he interrupted two of them in the course of their work seeming angry and using expletives when referring to the commissioners and again in a conversation about wages and salaries.
Burrows said that based on the people and departments mentioned in the original complaint, he interviewed five other employees, one of whom confirmed hearing the vulgar remarks. He said they all found Wilkinson’s behavior in the workplace “very unprofessional,” “rude,” “crude” and “aggressive.”
According to Burrows, the commissioners sent Wilkinson a letter on August 28, enumerating the allegations against him and the potential violations of county policy that were being considered as well as the potential actions that could be taken if the allegations were found to be credible and asked for a response to the claims by September 5. Not receiving a response, they sent out a notice on September 6 that they would be considering the issue on Friday, September 13.
At Friday’s meeting, Commissioner Greg Chilcott asked Wilkinson point blank if he wanted to respond to any of the claims.
Wilkinson said it was hard to respond because they were just showing him some “cuss words without any context.” He said that the commissioners were looking for a specific answer to a general allegation. He said he didn’t recall any specific event but might if they would tell him who he was supposedly talking to at the time and the whole context of the conversation.
Burrows insisted that the context of the statements was not that important. So, he asked if Wilkinson could remember ever using that language in the workplace during working hours in any conversation. Wilkinson said he couldn’t recall. He also said that he believed the county was trying to get rid of him.
“I haven’t heard you deny that these events happened,” said Chilcott to Wilkinson.
Asked again if he ever called the commissioners a profanity in the workplace, Wilkinson said once again that he couldn’t recall.
Chilcott asked Wilkinson to read something out of the code and asked, “Do you deny that you use abrasive language?”
“It depends on what you consider abrasive,” Wilkinson said. “I think this is being used to come after me.”
“This is the second time that somebody is trying to go after me,” he said.
Chilcott said that they had five separate employees with a similar story and no problem recalling it. “‘I don’t recall’ is an inadequate response to these accusations. It doesn’t wash. We need more than that,” he said.
Wilkinson said that he hadn’t been consulting an attorney, “but I am talking some to an attorney.”
“I can’t recall generalities,” he reiterated. “I don’t know why this is all happening,” he said.
Commissioner Chris Hoffman said that it wasn’t generalities. “It’s specific words that you said to an employee,” he said.
Wilkinson said once again that he could not remember generalities. “Maybe if you laid out who said what and what conversation maybe I would remember.” He suggested that they compare seven good years of work to making general accusations.
“I deny saying that to the public,” he said. “I deny saying anything like that to you guys.” He went on to say that he saw one of the commissioners once “flip off” one of the other commissioners at a meeting.
Chilcott said that it was probably him that Wilkinson was referring to, but that the meeting today was not about him, but about Wilkinson and his behavior and that he needed to address the commission’s concerns.
Hoffman said, “What we are left with is what each one of us has seen for ourselves.” He said he was approached by Wilkinson more times than he can count and had to listen to his opinion.
“You say you don’t keep a log or try to chronicle what you say to people, but maybe you should. Fact is, I don’t care what you call me.” He said it was about others sharing the workplace with Wilkinson that he was concerned.
“That you can’t speak to this, surprises me a little bit,” said Hoffman. “If you ask me, I believe everything in here,” he said about the complaint.
“You take no ownership for your comments,” said Chilcott. He said Wilkinson has just been blaming others, or deflecting the questions, or pointing to other people’s “bad” behavior as justifying his own. “Your comments and actions have offended not only one, but six employees and you’ve taken no personal responsibility,” he said. “If that’s your response, then we do have a problem.”
“I’m sorry if I said something that offended someone,” said Wilkinson.
“It’s too late now,” said Burrows. “It’s not sincere.”
Wilkinson then complained about the process and said that he didn’t think the investigation was conducted properly, but refused to elaborate.
Chilcott asked Wilkinson what he thought an appropriate disciplinary action might be.
Wilkinson said, “To tell me to be careful about what I say.”
“Counseling?” asked Chilcott.
“I didn’t say counseling,” said Wilkinson. “I’m not saying I deserve that. I’m saying I think it’s an appropriate response.”
“So you don’t think that you really need counseling, the most basic of the disciplinary actions?” said Chilcott.
“I’m fine if someone wants to talk to me about it,” said Wilkinson. “If we can change the atmosphere around here. I hope we’ve got somebody who’ll do the same thing for anyone when anything else comes up, because there are a lot of things that pop up on my computer every day that offend me. Like those things where I have to tell people how to go to it. It offends me. There are a lot of things that are offensive around here. This is learning for me. I will definitely watch what I say and I will make an effort to look around and make sure I’m not offending anybody. Or try not to. I don’t know what offends everybody.”
Wilkinson said that he was offended when he saw a picture of a famous ballerina with the face of Commissioner Burrows on the county website. He called it very unprofessional. He was also bothered by the names of some county web locations that he always had to apologize for like “groovyonlineimages.”
The commissioners considered potential discipline ranging from counseling to a verbal warning or written warning, a performance improvement plan, suspension with pay and suspension without pay, demotion or transfer, or finally termination.
Hoffman expressed concern for the people in the workplace. “We have a responsibility, and no one has the right to create a hostile work environment.”
Chilcott said, “It seems that in your mind you have done nothing wrong, that everybody does these kinds of things.”
“I’m sorry if anyone was offended,” said Wilkinson. “I don’t remember any specifics.”
Chilcott said that if a person doesn’t recognize there is a problem that they need to correct, then you can’t correct it. “But at the same time, I want to give you a chance,” he said. He said they were looking at a potential lawsuit for allowing a hostile work environment and that Wilkinson had not given them any response.
“’I don’t remember’ is a response,” said Wilkinson.
“I’m looking for a response that protects our employees,” said Chilcott. “But I’m going to give you a last chance.” He moved to impose two weeks of suspension without pay, followed by a three-month performance improvement plan with the proviso that another infraction would lead to termination.
“I have a hard time seconding that motion,” said Hoffman. “As I recall my own experience and what I’ve seen here today, I haven’t heard anything to change my mind. I’ve seen nothing today that you care about any of the other employees.”
The motion died due to lack of a second.
“I move to terminate,” said Hoffman.
Chilcott seconded the motion.
“If I had any indication that he understood and realized that it was inappropriate,” said Hoffman.
“I said I’ll watch everything I say,” said Wilkinson. “I don’t think I was out of bounds that much given the atmosphere. I’ll modify my behavior.”
The commissioners voted unanimously to terminate.