Vero Power Plant punishments chalked up to progressive discipline

VERO BEACH – Vero Beach Interim City Manager Monte Falls found himself justifying the disciplinary actions taken against three employees pertaining to a harassment case involving the Power Plant.

Vice Mayor Pilar Turner and other members of council questioned why the employees were only suspended for a few days, instead of given more harsh discipline. Falls cited the city’s policy of progressive discipline and explained how it was applied.

“What we do here is called progressive discipline,” Falls said. “If the allegations are such that they can skip steps in the progressive discipline, we do that.”

The city skipped the steps of verbal and written warnings and shorter suspensions in this case.

Falls said the next step for the affected employees would be a “move toward termination” if the behavior persists.

“These are pretty serious violations,” Falls said.

The harassment, according to the complainant, also encompassed insulting comments about the victim’s wife and children and even a threat on the employee’s personal safety – when a fellow employee said he would get a gun out of his locker.

Falls explained to the Vero Beach City Council that an outside attorney, Christopher Curran of Ford-Harrison in Miami, was brought in to conduct an investigation.

The decision to bring in outside help was so an impartial conclusion could be reached, according to Falls.

“I think bringing in an outside investigator was the best move, the fairest,” Vice Mayor Turner said.

Details of the suspensions of Relief Operator Robert Mike Phillips, Control Operator Chad McDaniel and Watch Engineer Craig Wellmaker were released to the media on Jan. 3 and members of the City Council were later briefed on the results of the investigation. Phillips and McDaniel were suspended for three days each and Wellmaker was issued a five-day suspension.

The disciplinary actions had to be negotiated with representatives of the Teamsters Local 769 because it represents the rank-and-file Power Plant employees.

Falls and Human Resources Director Robert Anderson explained that the suspensions were deemed appropriate, instead of terminating the employees, because the infractions were determined by the investigator to be serious but not malicious.

The investigator said in his report that the harassing behavior was part of a pervasive “locker room mentality” present at the Vero Beach Power Plant.

Councilwoman Tracy Carroll took issue with that assessment, saying that the case was based not on a single incident of harassment, but on an “ongoing pattern” over a period of years, which should make it more serious than just an off-hand comment.

“After reading the documents, I cannot see how you can determine that it was not malicious,” Carroll said.

Falls confirmed that “the allegations were of multiple incidents,” but he stood by the discipline meted out.

To address the inappropriate culture at the Power Plant, the city is bringing in a clinical psychologist, at a cost of $2,500 to $5,000 plus two hours of overtime for employees not on shift that day, to meet with the 32 staffers on Jan. 25.

Falls said the city would make it “abundantly clear” to employees that inappropriate behavior will not be tolerated. He said the goal is to impart “a higher level of understanding” about the issue.

No discipline was handed out to the supervisors accused of not only tolerating and overlooking, but also participating in the harassing behavior.

The employee had alleged that Power Plant management all the way up to Power Resources Director Jim Stevens was aware of the behavior and that he had told employees to not reveal to the outside world the goings on at the Power Plant.

The complainant also claims that he was told by supervisors to falsify Power Plant inventory records and pressured to do so with the use of threatening statements.

The victim has been out on paid administrative leave since before Thanksgiving in order to remove him from the situation.

Click here to read coverage of this issue from earlier this week.

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