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Rockville City Attorney tells new Mayor no way

Newton and city council say they will not look at and won’t release controversial study

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Published on: Friday, November 15, 2013

By Holden Wilen

ROCKVILLE – Newly elected mayor Bridget Newton has already pulled an about-face on a major city issue and at least one former mayor says Newton and the newly elected counsel are in troubling waters.

During campaign season, then-city Councilwoman Bridget Newton said if elected mayor she would support having the newly-elected mayor and council view a report the city paid $190,000 to have produced regarding personnel complaints by city employees.

Now, after winning the mayoral election, Newton has had a change of heart as a result of a conversation she had with city attorney Debra Yerg Daniel.

“I have had further conversations with the city attorney that have made it clear to me that it would be inappropriate and unhelpful for the mayor and council to see the specifics,” Newton said. “I will tell you I am very disappointed in the way this was done but that is old news. We need to move forward and we need to move forward by correcting the issues that were there before and doing everything in our power to make sure they never happen again.”

Former mayor Steve VanGrack said the city’s elected officials owe its residents more of an accounting.

“I maintain the position I always have maintained which is it is extremely important for the mayor and council to look at the report.,” VanGrack said. “If it needs to be redacted, that is fine in order to protect the employees, but it is imperative the mayor and council review the content of that report.

“Bridget has to provide an additional explanation, as does the city attorney, as to why the report should not be reviewed and why it would not be helpful to the mayor and council.”

Five former city employees told the Sentinel last year they experienced discrimination and racism from supervisors. Their allegations and the subsequent Sentinel stories resulted in the mayor and council hiring a law firm, Saul Ewing LLP, for $90,000 to conduct an investigation. The city later extended the contract for an additional $100,000.

Once the investigation began, the former human resources director resigned, as did the director of the recreation and parks department. The former city manager resigned in December 2011, and Rockville hired the current city manager, Barbara Matthews, a month before the findings of the report were released.

Matthews and Daniel are the only two individuals who have viewed the report, while the mayor and council refuse to look at it. The city will not release the report to the public, claiming there is too much information to redact, despite one former employee telling the Sentinel he was told names would not be used in the report.

Rockville now faces three lawsuits, with more potentially on the way.

Newton said Matthews is responsible for the city staff, but she shared her concerns and made it clear she wants to provide a safe and comfortable work environment for employees.

“It comes down to trust and we have to trust that the city manager is doing what needs to be done and if not, then the city manager will be held accountable. There is no other way to say it,” Newton said. “We have been told by the city attorney that it would not be good for us to see the report. Fine, we will take that, and now we need to trust that they—the city manager and city attorney—are doing their jobs and ensuring that our employees are protected and given a work environment that is both safe and in which they can do their best work.”

So is the city manager the most powerful person in Rockville? Newton says no.

“The city manager serves at the pleasure of the mayor and council and if the council decides it is not working, it is up to them to make that decision,” Newton said. “I do not see that as the case right now and I have made clear to the city manager my concerns and my hopes for going forward. I am relying on the city manager to do the job that we hired her to do and that is to make sure Rockville is a top notch city and governmental organization.”

As for the rest of the council, they all have said they do not support viewing the Saul Ewing report.

Tom Moore, who won reelection to the council, has said multiple times it would be against the law for elected officials to view personnel files.

Beryl Feinberg and Julie Palakovich Carr, who were elected to the council after running on the Team Rockville slate with Moore, expressed similar views about the council looking at the report.

 “In this case, given what the laws are, the mayor and council just do not have the right to look at that information,” Carr said. “We are lucky to have a good city manager and we can trust her in terms of this.”

Councilmember-elect Virginia Onley, much like Newton, told the Sentinel she would support viewing the Saul Ewing report. However, she has changed her stance. Onley, who also ran on the Team Rockville slate, said she agreed it would be against the law for her to look at the report.

Onley said she is open to doing “what is in her power” to help city employees feel comfortable, but she does not know what that is right now because she has not even officially taken office yet.

“We need to take a look at the issues and remain committed to being as involved as we can,” Onley said.

Legislatively, Newton said the new mayor and council need to approve revisions to the personnel policies and procedures manual.

At this point in time, Newton said she does not have a timeline laid out, but she wants to deal with personnel issues as quickly as possible. For now, Newton said she plans to sit down with the city’s new human resources director, Karen Marshall, who the city hired last month, and then have the council come up with a plan during its planning strategy sessions.

“Legislatively we will approve the policy and procedures manual and ensure our employees are both protected and offered the best environment we can offer,” Newton said. “I have been assured that we are doing what we can do on the council, and continue to ensure that we are doing everything we can do to provide a safe and comfortable work place.”

Reader Comments - 4 Total

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Posted By: Jersey Joe On: 11/28/2013

Title: Former Employee

I am a former employee and have since moved on to another position in the county. I will say that the City is failing at the simplest concept of our government, FAIRNESS. There is none when supervisors are not held accountable for their acts and allowed to carry on with their intimidation. I left because I wanted to be happy. Many employees have been there for years and fear for their pensions and other benefits that come with long term service. Until someone with a firm hand takes over, there will be no FAIRNESS in Rockville, and that is sad.

Posted By: Tim Price On: 11/21/2013

Title: Atlantis lost.

I have been following the series of stories reported in the Sentinel for over a year now and the only apparent change is the taxpayers lost 200 THOUSAND dollars for a report intended clearly to find out the liability of claims made against the city.
The city attorney snubs her nose at the mayor by her actions.
If there was no issue except HR improvements' then why did the mayor and council approve additional money??? Sounds like the Mayor and Council were duped by the city attorney and Ms. Kimbal into a well funded cover up of facts.
How many of the supervisors responsible for the horrific treatment of city staff have been fired? The answer appears to be NONE!
Something really stinks in city hall and it is clearly time to take out the trash.

Posted By: A person who spoke to Saul Ewing On: 11/19/2013

Title: Well well full steam ahead in the fog.

Well the election is over and we get to see the real side of our new mayor. All the posturing and comments and we end up with a lame duck first term mayor. The city attorney just continues to run circles around the elected officials, and the mayor talks about moving on. Sorry one needs to address the low morale and continuing issues inside city hall. .
I suggest that no changes have been made and ole Barb and the new HR director are in la la land. Ask yourself what changes have been made in the city? The taxpayers payed close to 200k for exactly what? You know darn well there were more issues than reported by the former mayor and the spokesperson Ice Berg.

Posted By: Disappointed Resident On: 11/18/2013

Title: Broken Promise

It didn’t take long for elected officials to break their campaign promise. For the past few years, the managers have been running the prison. Had high hope that Bridgette would take charge, demolish the prison, release the prisoners and allow the team work to return to City Hall that once made Rockville an All-American City.
Management of our beautiful city has become an embarrassment. A position with the City of Rockville was once one of prestigious status. Employees were respected and honored to perform above and beyond the call of duty, but now perform as puppets who fear their strings will break and they will be discarded.
Who cares enough to right a wrong? Not our new mayor.


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