LONGTIME STAFFERS CITE HOSTILE WORK ENVIRONMENT AT CITY’S PUBLIC WORKS DEPARTMENT

 

By Caitlin Switzer

MONTROSE—When a former City of Montrose staffer contacted the Mirror last week, it was not only to tell his own story; the 17-year Public Works employee brought with him pages of notes containing questions and concerns from former coworkers regarding what they perceive to be a hostile work environment—workers who found their longtime job titles changed to positions that earned less for salary comparison purposes, others who found their hours cut and workloads increased without added compensation, others who, after years of excellent reviews, suddenly found they could “do nothing right.”

Because of the danger of retribution, the name and specific gender of two of the sources quoted here will not be divulged.

“Top City management has remodeled the Elks Civic Building twice in the past few years, and they all have these nice, new, glass office doors,” the former staffer said. “The City is also buying up real estate like crazy.

“But at Public Works, there is no money for anything,” he said. “I used to trap mice under my desk.

“The whole Montrose Public Works building is infested with mice,” he noted. “There is black mold all through the building too—there have been complaints over the years; though it was only found in the bathroom, I am certain that there is black mold in the drywall as well, where the rain has been coming in for years.

“The break room was the worst,” he said. “Especially behind the trash can—there were mice in and out. You always knew that if you picked up a cocoa packet, those chew marks had not been made by a human. I believe if City Council had to have their offices over there, it would be remodeled immediately.”

Even worse, bullying, screaming, and being lied about became commonplace occurrences under City Manager John Harris, whose staff initially supported his promotion to Public Works Director, the former staffer said.

“It became a hostile work environment,” he said. “When John was first promoted everyone was happy, because we all liked him. But one of the very first things he did was fire a female engineer—she told me later that he degraded her so much that she began to doubt herself. And yet, her file shows that she resigned, and nobody knew why.”

Today, only one woman remains in the Public Works department, he said.

“The public needs to know what’s going on,” he said. “When (former Assistant and Interim Montrose City Manager) Scott Sellers was here, he had an open door policy and he stuck with it. Now, that policy is only for looks—if you do speak up, what you say will definitely be held against you.”

City finances have become so complex that Public Works payables are often paid more than once, at one point resulting in an overpayment of $16,000 to a Grand Junction supply company, he said. Concurrently, longtime staffers have been targeted for bullying, he said, and as they “resign” are systematically replaced by seasonal workers.

“(Former Parks Supervisor) Thordy Jacobsen worked 12 hours a day,” he said. “If one of his crew was out, Thordy went out and covered their shift. And yet, when John Harris became director, Thordy suddenly couldn’t do anything right. They piled more and more work on him and cut his staff until he resigned. In my case, they gave me a second job to do when another staffer resigned, cut me back to 20 hours a week, and refused to train me for the new job or pay me more—and yet I still had to do invoices and answer phones all the while.

 

“They like to talk about how they are saving money by cutting staff, but how much are we really saving when John Harris gets to drive his city-owned vehicle back and forth to Delta County where he lives every day, and Bill Bell drives his new, $40,000 City-owned Tahoe on his family vacations?

“To me, it makes sense for (Public Works Manager) Jerry Sieversen to drive a city truck—he is on call at all hours,” the source said. “But Bill and John are not on call. They don’t have the GPS trackers that everyone else who works for the City has, either.”

Meanwhile, the crew that cared for 29 parks has been reduced to just five, he said, and the management of Cedar Cemetery has just been put out for bid.

“They’re not saving the taxpayers anything in the end,” the former staffer said. “The pattern has been to replace the top tier of city workers—those of us who are at the top of the pay scale because we have worked hard for years and have risen through the ranks. Now, workers have their titles changed from things like, “Equipment Operator” to “street worker,” which means the City can pay them less.

“But our beautiful cemetery will not look as good as it always has,” he said. “Because those guys really cared; seasonal workers won’t.”

Montrose City Manager Bill Bell, in a response to an inquiry from the Parks Advisory Board (which he later disbanded) explained his management philosophy of eliminating full-time, year-round Public Works staff: “The simplest way to describe the concept of seasonal versus full-time, benefited positions is to use the following example,” Bell said.  “FTE “A” makes $60,000 salary plus approximately $20,000 in benefits and works approximately 2,000 hours per year for a total cost of $80,000.

“The same position can be filled with five full-time seasonal positions (approx. 5,000 hours per year) incurring no health insurance and benefit costs for approximately $60,000,” Bell said.  “This saves the City a net of $20,000 and gives us over twice the amount of man-hours worth of work, thus making it a very effective staffing method for general maintenance jobs throughout the City.”

In the March 2015 City Beat Newsletter, Bell notes that in 2014, “The City had 149 full-time employees at year end, down 20.7% from a peak of 188 in 2008.”

Former Parks Advisory Board (PAB) Chair Marge Morgenstern, who along with other PAB members worked closely with City public works crews, called Bell’s conduct toward longtime staffers “criminal.”

“These people should not be out of work,” Morgenstern said, and added that she has requested the compensation packages of both Bell and his Assistant City Manager Rob Joseph, who had no municipal experience prior to arriving in Montrose as a Department of Local Affairs Intern in January of 2012, but who was promoted to Assistant to the City Manager in May of that year, and to Assistant City Manager in January of2013.

A current Public Works staffer, who has been in the department for many years and who also asked not to be identified publicly for fear of retribution, shared a similar personal experience with Harris’ leadership style.

“John was a nice guy when he was an engineer,” the longtime staffer said. “But as Public Works Director, he became a tyrant; I made the mistake of asking the wrong supervisor for a family leave—I asked my own boss, but I learned later from John that they had changed the policy and that it was unauthorized leave. I should have asked him instead—though I had my shifts covered and had arranged everything in advance. He took away two days’ pay as a penalty, and for months, he would walk right by me and not even acknowledge me.

“I drive a trash truck,” he continued. “I have been broke down three days this week because I am ‘waiting on a part.’ It seems like it can take a real long time to get parts in when you get on somebody’s bad side.

Still, “We love our City,” he said. “We have worked very hard for our community, and we have done a good job.”