AUBURN | Weeks before voting out their clerk, county legislators hired an outside firm to investigate a hostile work environment complaint she filed against the county administrator.
The taxpayer-funded investigation determined that a hostile environment did not exist, but that "inappropriate and unprofessional behavior" had taken place, according to an investigation report obtained by The Citizen. It also had recommendations for both the clerk and administrator to improve their working relationship.
The report, dated Dec. 6 and prepared by Manlius firm Strategic Management Solutions for approximately $2,800, was based on an investigation conducted on Nov. 29 and 30. The investigation was specifically focused on the relationship between former Clerk of the Legislature Mary Jones and County Administrator Tom Squires. Both have their offices on the sixth floor of the Cayuga County Office Building.
The report followed a complaint made by Jones with the state Department of Labor Public Employee Safety and Health division in the summer, claiming that a hostile work environment was being created by Squires. The report states that because PESH's role is “only to ensure policies were in place, the Legislature felt it was in everyone's best interest to have an actual investigation with regard to the environment in general.”
Various county employees were interviewed, including representatives from different departments who might have had interaction with the county administrator's office, according to the report.
The report also addressed some of what the interviews uncovered: that profanity is used, sometimes in front of people who are offended by it; sarcastic comments are made about people behind their backs; belittling comments are made to people; the tone of voice individuals sometimes use is too loud, sometimes to the point of yelling; situations that need to be and are addressed are done so without diplomacy and in a manner that offends people; people's views are disrespected, and people are not always given the opportunity to voice their thoughts and opinions.
The five-page investigation report also concluded that there were ill feelings between Jones, Squires and former Chairman of the Legislature Steven Cuddeback, who served in that role during 2012.
Squires declined to comment on the issue.
Jones, who was employed by the county for more than 18 years, declined to comment on the investigation beyond this statement: “I’m not going to play the ‘he said, she said’ game with the county. 2012 was a stressful and brutal year and those who know the truth know it and those that choose to cover it up may do so. I have worked very hard, put in a lot of hours and treated all employees and the public respectfully.
“It has been a pleasure serving the tax payers of Cayuga County for the past 17 years and my best to all.”
The investigation also made several recommendations. Among them were to retain the services of a professional to mediate the issues between Jones and Squires to improve their working relationship; to provide counseling for Squires on how to remain calm and professional under stress; to provide counseling for Jones on better ways to interact with others; to explore how the Legislature interacts with employees; and to analyze how the duties of Legislature clerk and county administrator are defined.
Despite the recommendations made on Dec. 6, none have been implemented, according to county legislators.
But on Jan. 3 at the Legislature's reorganization meeting, a divided Legislature chose not to reappoint Jones as its clerk. Instead, officials appointed Deputy Clerk Sheila Smith to the position.
Both Jones and Smith were nominated for the position that is appointed annually. The vote was taken but when the result was a 7-7 tie, newly appointed Legislature Chairman Michael Chapman advised legislators that the vote would fall to a weighted-voted majority to break the deadlock.
When asked if his vote had anything to do with the county's investigation, Legislator David Axton immediately answered no.
“It's a year-to-year appointment and I wasn't happy with the performance,” he said. “I don't think the performance and the ability to work with other people was there. I'm not a fan of personal relationships clouding what's right or wrong and based on speaking with people on the sixth floor, it's dropping a weight off their shoulders.”
Axton agreed that both Jones and Squires had issues with each other over the last year but said he felt like it was an isolated issue between both of them.
“The only issues that I've ever heard of were between Tom and Mary, and so I think that Tom should go and take a class or do what he has to do,” he said, “but I'm confident that this was an isolated issue.”
Axton and other legislators attempted to curb the problem well before the reorganization meeting in January, he said.
“Over the last year I pushed to have three separate meetings with Mary to come to some sort of agreement about what her positions were and to help solve the issue,” he said.
But when problems continued, Axton said, he weighed performance and professionalism before making his final vote.
“I think that there were a lot of issues on the sixth floor,” he added, “and in my opinion and speaking with department heads and county employees, I feel like making this change will rectify the problem.”
Various department heads declined to comment on the issue.
Other legislators disagreed with Axton’s views and publicly voiced their support on Jan. 3 when voting for Jones. The only way Axton could explain the divide among legislators is their personal relationships with Jones, he said.
“The divide is personal relationships with Mary that they had before she became clerk,” he said. “You need to do the right thing and base your decision on what’s best for the county to keep moving forward and luckily seven people that voted to move in a different direction looked past personal relationships.”
Legislator Paul Pinckney believed that part of the problems of the sixth floor result from a lack of information about employee responsibilities.
“I think where the problem lies is that it wasn’t clearly broken down — that there wasn’t an administrator’s roles,” he said. “We need to better clarify what the clerk does for us and what the administrator does for us.”
Pinckney voted to reappoint Jones. He thought the issues she and Squires had were getting better, he said. And while legislator Axton mentioned meeting with Jones multiple times, Pinckney said that if there were multiple meetings regarding the issue, he wasn’t part of them.
“I only made one,” he said.
Despite the problems, Pinckney believes that the county’s investigation had nothing to do with Jones’ reappointment vote.
“Their decisions to appoint Sheila was already a done deal before the final analysis came through,” he said. “I personally don’t think this had anything to do with it.”
Legislator Hans Pecher, who also voted to reappoint Jones, agreed with Pinckney.
“I can straightly say that no, this was not the cause for the action that was taken,” he said. “But I couldn’t see that the problems were great enough to replace Mary. I think she did a great job for 99 percent of the time and that one percent, well it’s unfortunate that it’s over for her.”
Cuddeback firmly disagreed, saying the investigation played an integral part of Jones’ dismissal.
“Yes. I think it had everything to do with that vote,” he said. “And it’s clear that the investigation was not done properly. Many people were not interviewed that should have been.”
According to the investigation, two county employees who, Cuddeback said, played a part in an incident regarding both Jones and Squires were not interviewed
Cuddeback also voted to reappoint Jones and said that his decision has nothing to do with personal relationships.
“I think she did a fine job and she was doing what she was supposed to be doing,” he said. “She works for the legislators and I believe that she was working for us and doing what was expected of her.”
Other county legislators declined to comment on the issue because, they said, it was a personnel matter.
Former County Manager Wayne Allen is not surprised by the issues that surfaced. Allen was Cayuga County’s first county manager and worked alongside Jones before being fired by county legislators in 2009.
“As a matter of fact, I expected this to happen sooner rather than later,” he said. “There were many instances of conflict between not only Mary but with her staff and other people within the county.”
Allen said that during his tenure as county manager he also had issues with Jones but believes that those issues stem from the Legislature’s inability to properly focus the job duties of each employee.
“It’s their responsibility to clear up the mess that they created and they need to straighten it out and make it clear,” he said. “I have no personal animosity against Mary Jones but I just thought she was not the proper fit for that particular job.”