3 suspended at conclusion of racial harassment case at Vero Beach power plant

VERO BEACH – Three Vero Beach power plant employees will be suspended without pay starting Jan. 17 following the conclusion of a racial harassment investigation.

Two employees will serve a three-day suspension without pay while the third will serve a five-day suspension, also without pay. Those who have been suspended include Relief Operator Robert Mike Phillips, Control Operator Chad McDaniel and Watch Engineer Craig Wellmaker.

Along with suspension, a clinical psychologist is scheduled to spend the day at the power plant to address what the investigator has classified a “locker-room mentality” amongst some employees.

The psychologist’s visit is expected to cost the city between $4,000 and $5,000, according to city records.

In their suspension notices, Power Resources Director Jim Stevens told all three employees that their behavior “was egregious but probably not malicious.”

Stevens went further in his notices to Phillips and Wellmaker, writing that their behavior and reactions show “poor judgment.”

The investigation began after Data Analyst Keith Srinivasan filed a complaint with the Human Resources Department alleging racial discrimination and harassment.

Srinivasan claimed in his complaint that certain employees referred to him with ethnic and racial slurs, by the names of “Saddam Hussein” and “Bin Laden” and that they mocked his wife and children.

He also claimed that he was treated differently than white employees due to his ethnicity.

The discrimination allegations against Stevens and Acting Manager of Support Services Jack Keltner were unfounded, according to investigator Christopher Curran, an attorney with Ford and Harrison LLP.

As part of the recommended corrective action, Curran wrote that Srinivasan should be allowed to return to work and the city should consider relocating him elsewhere to another position.

In the event that Srinivasan cannot be relocated, he should be advised to “timely come forward and report any further instances of harassment and/or discrimination.”

“The importance of non-retaliation against Srinivasan must be stressed,” Curran wrote in his list of recommendations.

“I’m very apprehensive about going back to the power plant,” Srinivasan said Monday afternoon, after being informed by a member of the media that the investigative report had been made public.

As of Monday, he had not received a copy of the report or its findings from the city. He has been on paid administrative leave during the investigation.

Srinivasan said that he has applied for other positions within the city, including a post within the Transmission and Distribution department of the electric utility. He said he had been told he would not be getting that job.

Srinivasan has consulted with an attorney, he said, but the attorney was only interested in suing the city for a lot of money. He said that was not his interest.

The psychologist is expected to visit the power plant later this month, first to meet with Stevens to explain the “locker-room mentality” amongst employees, and later with the rest of the power plant’s staff.

“Stevens will be advised that the goings-on at the plant are ultimately his responsibility,” Curran wrote in his report, “and that he must be proactive, even-handed, and consistent in investigating possible breaches of policy, and responding to actual breaches of policy.”

Reporter Lisa Zahner contributed to this article.

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