Tuesday, December 10, 2013 2:35 PM
Published on: Thursday, October 03, 2013
By Holden Wilen
ROCKVILLE –With the city election just a little more than a month away, candidates for spots on the mayor and council are taking their positions on how to handle the issues regarding employee complaints of discrimination and racism. One mayoral candidate, current Councilman Mark Pierzchala, said not only does he not want to see a report the mayor and council paid $190,000 to have produced, but the fact employees have made complaints “does not mean anything.”
“You hear just (the complainants’) side and (the city) should not comment. You only get the side of people that have a complaint. You are not in a position, and I am not in a position to judge the accuracy or the context of that,” Pierzchala said. “These are personnel matters and there are procedures for these people to follow. There should be a lack of transparency because it is not a public process. This is absolutely not a public process for us to look at the details of these people’s complaints and how they were handled. It is not supposed to be transparent. Those procedures and protections are there for the employees.”
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 $90,000 to conduct an investigation. The city later extended the contract for an additional $100,000.
After 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.
Only Matthews and the city attorney 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. The alleged abuse by supervisors has led to a situation where a former code inspector says the city is without qualified inspectors.
Former Rockville mayor Steve VanGrack said he thinks one of the main issues voters will have on their minds is the personnel issue, and he still cannot understand why the mayor and council will not look at the report.
“I have been very much confused and uncertain as to why the mayor and council spent almost $200,000 for a report which deals with allegations of discrimination against our city government. We love the employees of the city of Rockville,” VanGrack said at a campaign kickoff event for Claire Marcuccio Whitaker, who is running for council. “They are the heart of what we do. This report was not viewed by the mayor and council and this report did not lead us to the hiring of another person who does not have allegations or problems with discrimination.”
VanGrack said one of the many reasons he is supporting Whitaker is that she has raised the same questions regarding the report. Whitaker said she would support the new mayor and council looking at the report. “Of course I would,” she said. “I am not sure why it has never gotten a look by the mayor and council.”
Personnel issues are the city manager’s responsibility, Pierzchala said, and the report should not be put in the hands of politically elected officials. His opponent, current Councilwoman Bridget Donnell Newton, disagrees and said if she is elected she would support viewing the report, as long as the names are redacted. Newton said she supports the new human relations director and the initiatives recommended by the Saul Ewing report, but more needs to be done.
“We have given it over a year and we are not in a better place,” Newton said. “Having the mayor and council get the information would enable us to ask questions and get the answers we need to fix this.”
Council candidate Don Hadley, an attorney and chair of the city’s Planning Commission, said he “absolutely” would support viewing the report as an act of oversight of the city manager by the mayor and council. If the performance of one branch of government is giving rise to lawsuits, he said, then the other branch needs to review the report.
“Perception is reality for many people and if you have a perception that there are issues, then if that report is something you do not turn out, then what do you do?” Hadley said. “I would be open to considering if there is a policy issue that should be addressed that is broader than the symptoms or the actions.”
Pierzchala leads a five-person slate, Team Rockville, which also includes current Councilman Tom Moore and newcomers Julie Palakovich Carr, Beryl Feinberg and Virginia Onley.
Moore said the mayor and council are not allowed to view the report, and doing so would be a gross violation of people’s privacy.
“It is against the law and I do not want to break the law,” Moore said. “Anyone who says the mayor and council have the right to look at those personnel details is wrong on the law. Period.”
The biggest thing the mayor and council can do, Moore said, is approve recommended revisions to the personnel policies and procedures manual by Matthews.
Carr expressed a similar opinion to Moore, saying she has a confidence in Matthews and the new human resources director to do her job. The mayor and council should provide oversight, she said, by reviewing the new policies and ensuring they provide adequate protections to the employees.
When asked if she would support the mayor and council looking at the Saul Ewing report Carr said, "I'm all for transparency in government, but not when it jeopardizes confidentiality of employee records."
Onley disagreed with her fellow Team Rockville members. While reports such as the Saul Ewing report are not generally shared, she said she sees distrust from the public in the city government, and the next mayor and council will need to rebuild the trust.
“I would (support viewing the report). I do not support everyone taking a look at it. I think that would be very unfair,” Onley said. “I think that if there are any personnel issues that need to be addressed, then hopefully the city manager has already taken a look at them, but if she has not then the mayor and council will have to set the policy that says, ‘Okay, city manager, we need you to handle these issues,’ so we can get back to business as usual and satisfy the trust of the residents of Rockville.”
Pierzchala said he has visited thousands of households while he has been out knocking on doors, and he very rarely hears anyone talk about a lack of faith in the government.
“I get maybe a handful of people since April who have mentioned anything about this investigation at all or any widespread discontent with the city’s government,” Pierzchala said. “I get that on rare occasions. Most people tell me they are very happy with the city.”
Beryl Feinberg could not be reached for this story because she is out of town on a family emergency.