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Rockville City Manager responds to problems

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Published on: Thursday, October 17, 2013

By Holden Wilen

ROCKVILLE – Amid continuing turmoil in the city in the aftermath of an investigation into employees’ complaints of racism and discrimination, City Manager Barbara Matthews has proposed revisions to the personnel policies and procedures manual to the mayor and city council and responded to recent stories published in the Sentinel.

Last year, five former city employees told The Sentinel they experienced discrimination and racism from supervisors. The allegations resulted in the mayor and council hiring a law firm, Saul Ewing LLP, for $190,000 to conduct an investigation. Saul Ewing completed a report, but the city will not release it and only Matthews and City Attorney Debra Yerg Daniel have reviewed it.

The city released findings from the report in November 2012. Earlier this month the city hired a new human resources department director. Now, Matthews has finally proposed preliminary revisions to the personnel policies and procedures manual to the mayor and council, who per the city code have 55 days to make any changes before they automatically go into effect. Two weeks ago Matthews went through the revisions with the mayor and council in a closed session.

“We do not anticipate meeting again with mayor and council in closed session unless they ask for it. We asked if they need a follow-up meeting and my understanding is they do not. If we do not get any instruction the changes automatically go into effect at the end of their term,” Matthews said. “My sense is there is some interest in wrapping it up before then.  We will be happy to provide a copy of the changes when they go through.”

Mayor Phyllis Marcuccio said Matthews enlisted the help of a consultant to draft the revisions. Now, she and the council have some time to do some cleanup. She did not say the changes would have any dramatic effect on the treatment of employees.

“I think the revisions bring us in line with all of the federal legislation,” Marcuccio said. “I do not think any major changes in policy occurred. Everything is pretty standard. The general comment to us was our policies were broad and need more attention but we are in compliance.”

Marcuccio said the city manager is doing what she can and is trying to do things in steps to make sure she has a secure, collaborative staff to work with.

“I think she has tried to gain the confidence and the faith in her decision making by the staff,” Marcuccio said. “She has tried to be fair, open and direct so staff does not get into situations that they were in where they felt helpless.”

In a recent Sentinel story, candidates for mayor and council in next month’s election were asked if they would view the Saul Ewing report, and the answers were mixed. When asked if she would comply with a request by the mayor and council if they instructed her to provide them with a copy of the report, she said she would want to talk to the city attorney first.

“My understanding is that the city had pledges confidentiality to employees coming forward and that Saul Ewing had conveyed that rather vigorously to the people who were interviewed,” Matthews said. “I do not know if there are any legal ramifications to the city of breaching that pledge that was made to those individuals. That is a legal question and I am not a lawyer. That is the most I could tell you at this point.”

Matthews also responded to allegations from a former code inspector that the city is in violation of state law because it does not have a certified master plumber on staff.

The state legislation is not clear, Matthews said. The city does not have a master plumber on staff, she said, but there is a provision of the state code that provides for local jurisdictions to set their own minimum standards. The city follows the standards set forth by the International Code Council and several employees have ICC plumbing code certifications.

“To the best of our knowledge we are meeting standards,” Matthews said. “There is a new law that has gone into effect that impacts this section of the code. Our impression is it will change the standards of people we hire after the law goes into effect on Jan. 1.”

 Charles Baker, the former code inspector, said if the city did set its own minimum standards, it would have needed to get approval from the state and should have the documentation on file.

Matthews said she is not aware of any consultation with the state because it would have occurred long ago. She has not seen a letter from the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation but said she has never asked to see one.

“The biggest issue here is we take our responsibility for public safety very seriously. We have good inspectors on staff who take their job seriously,” Matthews said. “We believe that we are meeting what we are required to do by the state. If for some reason that turns out to not be the case then we will proactively deal with that, but at this juncture we believe we are meeting the standards. We believe we have qualified people doing inspections.”

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