As the dust settled on the city of China following a tumultuous budget workshop July 12, a new storm was brewing. The new tempest is closely related to the budget woes, but as opposed to complaints coming from elected leaders, grievances are now being lodged by city employees – all four of them, to be more precise.
During an executive session held July 17, city of China elected leaders met behind closed doors to discuss complaints of harassment filed by all four members of the city’s paid staff. Although no formal action was taken in relation to the employee grievances, informal measures have been taken to make the work environment less hostile, sources from within the city government tell The Examiner. Two complainants spoke with the newspaper in advance of filing the official complaints with the city with one alleging work-related harassment and being followed on the job, precluding the employee from adequately performing their job. The other employee alleged a form of sexual harassment from an elected official’s unwanted glares down her blouse.
Neither employee submitted complaints to the EEOC, and the worker alleging the voyeuristic harassment said she hoped to have the matter resolved without fanfare. And she might get her wish. With no formal action taken after the City Council’s July 17 meeting, a separate agenda action item would need to be introduced at a future date for further discussion and/or action.
City Secretary Cindy Flores, with more than a decade of service to the city of China to her credit, said she wants a work environment that isn’t as hostile as the one she’s become accustomed to. In recent weeks, Flores has had to seek assistance from China Mayor Peggy Harkrider to address what the city secretary felt was all-out harassment.“She was screaming and there was a lot of commotion going on up there,” Harkrider said of the phone call she received from Flores. “I was at work. I told (Flores) to call the police.”No police were called that day. But in the interim, the entirely of the city’s staff penned complaints to the mayor.“Cities generally have policies for dealing with employee complaints of all different kinds,” city of China attorney Curtis Soileau said. “Depending on the complaint, an outsider can be hired to investigate on behalf of the city.”Not that any independent investigator was hired in this situation. To do so, the council, by a majority, would have to order such an investigation.“China is a general law city – all employees report directly to the City Council,” Soileau explained. “The council makes the decisions; I’m not aware of any other process in the city to deal with it.”While the complaints themselves might not be open for review due to the personnel issues attached, Soileau was able to answer pointed questions in a general sense. With regard to any municipal employee alleging harassment in the form of being followed by a council member, Soileau said the allegation would be hard to prove.“Every council person has a hand in decisions relating to employees – pay, work hours, job duties …” he said, again in general terms. “In a literal sense, a councilmember – by virtue of being on the council – is the boss.”Furthermore, he added, “No law that I’m aware of precludes anyone from using any public road they wish, or to show up at city hall, a public building. Obviously, there are laws against someone being a stalker.“Whether you agree with that or not, a councilmember does have the right – if a council person decides they want to see if an employee’s work is being done – they have the right to go check that out.“An employee might call it harassment, but it is not the legal definition of harassment.”Should the alleged harassment become actionable, he said, “A council person or mayor can be removed – only under very limited reasons – by a designated process.”However, the city’s attorney is hopeful whatever informal actions undertaken by city officials to correct the situation actually do what they’re intended to do.“Ultimately, every employer has to be concerned their employees are not subject to a hostile work environment,” Soileau said. “The work environment for that employee – whatever changes need to be made – the comfort of the work environment for that employee, if there is a problem or a perceived problem, should be addressed seriously.“You would hope those making the decisions would have the good of the city first and foremost in their minds, and it’s apparent to me the board does care about taking complaints from employees very seriously.“In some ways, their meetings and discussions are less formal than some of the other cities, but I genuinely hope and think despite their differences the council wants to do what’s right.“Sometimes it’s hard to turn off the campaign mode. When you’re trying to govern, the things you do in a campaign may not work so well.“It’s time now to govern.”