Convenient communications

Fresh from receiving an award for good communications earlier this month, the Town of Chapel Hill has been sending out a frenzy of public relations news releases. During the Christmas snowfall, we received twice-daily e-mail updates of plowing activity. And we received each e-mail twice, perhaps as part of a snow-emergency back-up system for e-mail.

But given the town’s thoroughness on other communications – awards the town wins, invitations and follow-up reminders to the swearing-in of the new chief of police – we were surprised that the town sent out no communication about its decision to deny the appeals by Kerry Bigelow and Clyde Clark to be reinstated to their jobs with the Public Works Department.

Bigelow and Clark were unexpectedly terminated – at least, it came as a surprise to them – from their positions as sanitation workers at the end of October. Several individuals and groups have been quite vocal about insisting that the pair be reinstated. Bigelow and Clark had evidently become thorns in the side of town administration by urging the town to improve unsafe working conditions, asking, for instance, that the town supply drinking water on sanitation trucks for workers in the summer. The town paid more than $22,000 to a human resources firm with a reputation for union-busting to build a case for firing Bigelow and Clark.

Bigelow and Clark appealed their termination. The hearings were held Dec. 2 and 3, and the town took its time mulling over whether it would change its mind. Mirroring the announcement of Bill Strom’s resignation, which took place at a hurriedly called meeting at 8 a.m. the Friday kicking off Labor Day Weekend in 2008, the town announced its decision on the Bigelow and Clark matter on Dec. 22, minutes before closing for a 5-day holiday break. I guess there wasn’t time to send out an e-mail.

No surprise that the town manager declined to reinstate the pair, given the exorbitant amount the town paid out of its taxpayer-funded coffers to quash any hope of workers mustering union clout for better working conditions. After all, improving worker safety would likely cost money, and with the ground-breaking for 140 West Franklin coming up next week, the town has to make good on its commitment to pay Ram Development $7.5 million for 161 parking spaces.

I wonder whether we’ll get an e-mail once that check is sent.
– Nancy Oates

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32 Comments

  1. Cam

     /  December 28, 2010

    Brilliant!
    You manage to tie the dismissal of the sanitation workers to Bill Strom and Lot 5. I am surprised you didn’t link to my pre election mailer of last year, there is at least as strong an association.

  2. John Kramer

     /  December 28, 2010

    Another great article. Thanks!

  3. Duncan O'Malley

     /  December 28, 2010

    Eds:

    Judging from the responses so far, this article proves once again your uncanny ability to bring the worms out of the woodwork.

  4. Fred Black

     /  December 28, 2010

    Mark Schulz wrote on 12/22:
    “Deputy Town Manager Flo Miller reviewed the appeals at hearings Dec. 2 and Dec. 3. “Following the Deputy Manager’s review of these appeals, the employment status of the former employees has not changed,” town officials said in a release.”

    What “release” is he referencing?

  5. Nancy Oates

     /  December 28, 2010

    Fred, I wondered about that, too, given that I’ve signed up with the town to receive its news releases via e-mail, and the “News Releases” link on the town’s website has nothing on the announcement. I’m exploring it further with Catherine Lazorko, the town’s communications director. I’ll let you know what I find out.

  6. Runner

     /  December 28, 2010

    I’ve got to agree wih Cam on this one. I think that your article is somewhat contrived. The handling of the employee issue is not even similar to the Bill Strom or lot 5 crap. There are enough things to discuss in this town without this kind of convolution.

  7. Nancy Oates

     /  December 28, 2010

    Catherine Lazorko said that no news release was sent out, but that she did send an e-mail response to a query from the media, basically saying that the employment status of the former employees had not changed and that town officials would not comment as the matter was ongoing.

  8. John Kramer

     /  December 28, 2010

    Mr. Duncan O’Malley- just who are you referring to as “worms”?? Hopefully you are man enough to answer.

  9. Scott Maitland

     /  December 28, 2010

    This discussion could use a modicum of balance. To wit, complaints from citizens AND co-workers are well documented:

    “The investigator was called in after the town reportedly received numerous complaints about the pair’s behavior from citizens on their waste collection route and also complaints from co-workers who allegedly said Bigelow and Clark intimidated them and ignored supervisors. ”

    Read more: The Herald-Sun – Fired sanitation workers lose city appeal

  10. Don Evans

     /  December 28, 2010

    Scott

    The use of the words “reportedly” and “allegedly” in news reports should be a red flag to truth-seekers. All we know about this case is what the town is dishing out, and one-source stories are suspect, especially when the source is a government. Let’s not forget that North Carolina recently has freed several men who spent a decade or more on Death Row because government workers ignored facts or fudged information to get convictions.

    Until the town comes clean with the details about the charges, I’m not going to assume it acted correctly — especially given the sneaky manner in which town staff have approached the issue.

  11. Terri Buckner

     /  December 28, 2010

    The newspapers are treating this as a single incidence but I seem to recall that there have been several instances over the past 5-10 years where Public Works staff have accused management of racism. Does anyone remember the specifics or am I mis-remembering?

  12. Terri, here’s a report from June 2008 that most of the currently sitting Council should recall:

    http://citizenwill.org/2008/06/25/council-oblivious-how-long-must-this-go-on/

    I do see a linkage and a slant in the way the Town “reports” on events which makes most of what is coming out of Townhall PR missives rather than workable reports. For instance, the Town finally acknowledging what I said would happen years ago – the loan financing the Lot #5 debacle won’t be paid off by parking fees (even if the fees are raised steeply).

    More and more the story is twisted to fit political means. Now, it’s generally expected that the pols will do this but rather disappointing when, one must assume, the local PIO is instructed to do it.

    I agree with Don that we are still getting one side of the events. We know the Town appears to have considered the ramifications of pursuing allegations against two labor reps by seeking outside counsel.

    It could very well be the case that all the allegations are true, that the investigator the Town hired reported in an objective manner. But, considering the supposed care they were using ,it is strange the Town contracted with an agency that is well known for their anti-labor stance (and statements – some of which are catalogue on my site) rather than another which had less baggage. Add in the pattern of “reportage” by the Town – issuing missives at the last possible second , shading the meaning of a press release, not incorporating citizen comments in the Council meeting flash reports, etc. – and we can understand the lack of confidence some of our community has in the entire process.

    http://citizenwill.org/2010/10/28/chapel-hill-council-union-busters/

    I hope the Personnel Board will open their proceedings, as the two workers requested, to help clear the air. I would expect that the facts, as they are, will be aired. A timeline of problems, the actions management took to correct, etc. laid out.

  13. Terri Buckner

     /  December 29, 2010

    Thanks for the link Will–and all the research you do. So we have a long standing problem with racism in the Public Works department, under two different managers and two different PW directors. It’s very similar to the problems UNC has with the Housekeeping department. The latest decision not to rehire the two workers is just more fuel on the long-term, half-buried problem of racism in our community. It’s not just a problem for the town mgmt or university mgmt. Gentrification fuels the fire. State budget cuts and the resulting layoffs fuel the fire. We’ve had citizens committees study the issue and conduct community workshops. And nothing changes. To me we have a much bigger problem than a PR dept for the town acting like a PR dept is supposed to act (serving as a rah-rah machine).

  14. Cam

     /  December 29, 2010

    One of the things I am sure of is that I don’t know enough about this situation to say whether it was racially motivated or not. I do know that the town has the right to fire workers and I want them to have that right. (I want the employees to have a union if they want one but the state won’t allow it.) I know the department head involved, I know the town manager and assistant town manager and I think very highly of them. I don’t believe they are racist (2/3 of them are African American).
    IF you think they are racist call for them getting fired don’t spout this half assed BS. It is a personnel matter and there are limits to what the town can say.
    What do you mean nothing changes? I haven’t heard a peep out of Public Works in three years.
    Everyone wants the town to be fiscally responsible and part of that is getting rid of poorly performing employees. Is it appropriate that the town has to spend $22,000 to fire two sanitation workers? I suspect that the town had no idea that the investigators they hired had a history of “union busting”. I wished they hadn’t hired anyone.

  15. Scott Maitland

     /  December 29, 2010

    Cam…..I knew the day would come when we agreed on something…… 🙂

  16. Terri Buckner

     /  December 29, 2010

    You’re welcome to your opinion Cam. But I kinda suspect based on everything I’ve read that the 2 fired workers and all the people who have chosen to speak up for them, disagree. Based on the history of the department, I chose to give credence to that disagreement. That doesn’t mean that I believe the department managers are racist. Cultures can carry racism without the individuals being so.

  17. Runner

     /  December 29, 2010

    Terri,

    You are using conjecture to make your acusation that racism was involved at some level in this case. Thank God we don’t use the internet as due process.

  18. Terri Buckner

     /  December 29, 2010

    Runner,

    I am not using conjecture. I am using a pattern of reported behavior over time. Where there’s smoke, there is frequently fire; not always, but sometimes.

  19. Runner

     /  December 29, 2010

    Terri,

    Now you’re scaring me. We’re not in Salem, you know. I’m glad that the town is not using your methodoligy, but rather seeking out the facts.

  20. George C

     /  December 29, 2010

    “Where there’s smoke, there is frequently fire; not always, but sometimes.”
    Terri, I’m sorry, but when it comes to leveling a charge of racism against our senior Town officials I’d like to see it justified by something a lot more concrete that the rationalization you provided above.

  21. Terri Buckner

     /  December 29, 2010

    I fail to see why acknowledging that long-standing, repeating accusations may have some validity. I am not leveling accusations against any individual. I am saying that racism is incidious in our culture; it creeps into our actions in ways that we are not always aware of. I doubt if there is a single person (of any race) who is devoid of any racist thought/behavior. We all do our best, but sometimes that best isn’t good enough, especially when viewed by those on the receiving end of the intentional or unintentional prejudice.

    In this instance, we could hire the NAACP or a company that they recommend to do an analysis of the situation. Would you accept that outcome?

  22. John Kramer

     /  December 29, 2010

    Why can’t you just let the Town run its business? Does stuff like this always have to turn into some big high school debate? The town found these guys in violation of employee conduct rules, they were fired for that. What does their race, gender, sexual orientation or any other such identifier that you liberals apply in the name of “equality” have to do with it? If they were both Catholics would their religion be an issue?

    Sheesh i thought the original story was great, and still do. All this wailing and gnashing of teeth can be done without, however.

    Happy new year!

  23. George C

     /  December 29, 2010

    “I am not using conjecture. I am using a pattern of reported behavior over time.”

    Terri, whose reported behavior are you referring to? The Department head who recommended the firings? The senior officials who upheld the firings?

    I don’t disagree that racism can be insidious in our culture, but your insinuating with your comments that it not only exists within out Town departments but that it is tolerated at the highest levels even after public charges of such are being leveled. IMHO, such tolerance would require much more than a bit of sub-conscious racism.

    I’m not sure who would be best to adjudicate this situation but I’d like to ask: at the end of the day if it turns out these firings were justified, who will be responsible for repairing the damage to the reputations of the Town officials who would have been proven to be unfairly labeled as racist? That’s a charge that will hang heavily over someone’s head for a very long time.

  24. Terri Buckner

     /  December 29, 2010

    Turn the question around, George. If, at the end of the day, the firings turn out to be unjust, who will be responsible for repairing the damage done to the reputations and the self-image of these two workers and their families? The town is responsible for letting this situation turn into one where there is no way out that offers either side a honorable exit.

    Over the years, I have heard you repeatedly laud the town for its progressive actions and viewpoints. This is one of the times where they had the opportunity to walk the talk and in my opinion, fell off the wagon. Firing the men was one thing, not right but also within the rights of any employer. But to then deny the men the opportunity to collect unemployment benefits in today’s economy is just not right, not right at all. And, in my humble opinion, it is inconsistent with the progressive image of the town you and Cam have spent so much time and energy perpetuating.

  25. Terri Buckner

     /  December 29, 2010

    Institutional racism is “an action which is not directly discriminatory but has a discriminatory effect, whether intended or not.”

  26. Runner

     /  December 29, 2010

    Terri,

    I guess you don’t understand the purpose of unemployment insurance. Unemployment insurance is for people who were laid off from their jobs. It is not for those who were fired for cause.

    This is a workplace matter, nothing bigger or more sinister going on here. IMHO, the town appeared to go through the proper steps in dealing with this matter. The town documented the individual’s actions and even went the extra step of employing an outside agency to verify these actions. It is in the employer’s right to do what they did.

    I have a lot of trouble with the accusations being thrown out on this thread. In fact, I feel that this is the low point for this particular website.

  27. I agree with Scott and Cam to some extent though I disagree that hiring an outside agency was a bad decision in this particular case.

    The two workers represent labor as well as work for the Town. Both had filed numerous grievances and complained of improper management actions. It was fairly obvious that there would be the appearance of retribution. Considering the Town justified the dismissals by alleging a continuous pattern of poor conduct rather than a specific instance requiring summary dismissal, building a strong evidentiary trail was prudent.

    Unfortunately, the outside counsel chosen was both eye-raisingly expensive and came with easy too see baggage. That was a major misstep. So, good idea, poor implementation.

    I don’t see what Terri has said as making a specific allegation of racism against the managers involved, but I’ll let her speak for herself.

    I do know, and as Cam should well know, there have been similar allegations made by workers for years involving different level of management and managers (back to Cal Horton).

    As I said in 2008, it is troublesome that the Town didn’t have an effective management process to deal with these issues before they blossomed into outright mistrust and acrimony. Based on my own management experience, I thought that the Town was dealin with a structural problem (which, at the time, I felt was exacerbated by the silo style of management the previous manager used).

    Given that we are still dealing with these issues in 2010 in a way that continues to sow mistrust within the community (and our Town’s staff), that systemic, structural problem appears to persist (another good reason for hiring someone outside the current process who can bring a fresh approach).

    Whether there is a basis for those prior allegations or the current ones is difficult for the average citizen to tease out – many of the records and actions are cloaked for both legal and other reasons.

    Like Cam, George, I know the folks who are involved in the review and expect that they exercised their duty in a professional manner. That doesn’t mean the decision was correct.

    How does the Town build trust for those folks who haven’t been involved deeply in Town issues? How best to deal with citizens who are suspicious of the motivations given the several missteps – poor choice of consultancy, poor pattern of communications by the Town – in any other way than to accede to the workers request for an open process?

  28. I apologize for the typos – a consequence of posting on the road.

  29. George C

     /  December 30, 2010

    Will, you don’t set up a set of procedures, especially involving human resources, and then start modifying them on a case by case basis. That would be disastrous. What’s the sense of setting up procedures in the first place if they are going to be changed for each situation.

    The Town has procedures in place and it apparently followed them, including the appeals process. If these men and the NAACP or the ACLU feel that the firings were unjust they should file a civil suit. I assume the NAACP or ACLU would have the resources to support such a suit if either felt it was justified. There are numerous instances where people unjustly fired have had the courts award them appropriate damages for such unjust behavior and I believe that the justice system, not the court of public opinion, is where these men should seek redress if they have a valid case. .

  30. Terri Buckner

     /  December 30, 2010

    You’re right Will, I haven’t made any directed accusations at a person or a single job position. I’ve pointed out the appearance of institutionalized racism at play in the continuing problems within Public Works, an observation which is strengthened by the fact that departmental and town leadership has changed while the problems for employees have persisted.

    The unwillingness of the people writing on this thread to consider that a structural problem (your words) or institutionalized racism (my words) exists illustrates perfectly why this is such an impossible situation for the workers to handle on their own.

    Over the past decade (under two managers), I’ve watched town management adopt a more corporate persona. They hire consultants to direct all the important development decisions, policy decisions, and now they are surrendering HR functions. Those outsiders don’t care about the people of this community–they care about money. They put this community into a value-set that generalizes from larger, more impersonal town and corporate management styles. I suppose that change is consistent with the urbanization of the town, but it doesn’t have to be this way. We can grow and still retain a community-approach to governance and leadership.

    In this situation, the value-set has led to a take-no prisoners solution, as demonstrated in the go-for-jugular decision that denies these men the opportunity to collect unemployment insurance. The final judgment makes this look (pun intended) like a black-white resolution. But everything that I’ve read screams gray, gray, gray. And since it is gray, arbitration could have led to a decision that would not force the town into court (costing even more money beyond the investigator fee) and would not deny these men the opportunity to feed their families and gain future employment.

    I’ve been asking myself what Yonni Chapman would be doing…….

  31. George, the Town decided to do something different when it authorized $20+ K to investigate and discharge the two workers.

    Terri, as per the ESC:

    “Potentially eligible claimants must have become unemployed through no fault of their own….”

    If the appeals process reinstates the two, I don’t believe they’ll qualify for ESC benefits though they might get some other compensation. If the appeals are exhausted with no reinstatement they are flat out of luck.

  32. Terri Buckner

     /  January 29, 2011

    Apparently I am not the only person who believes Clark and Bigelow have been treated unfairly, even though I was the only one saying so on this particular blog. I’m very glad that others have gone to the council asking that, at the very least, these men be allowed to received unemployment compensation:

    Will Raymond’s (CitizenWill.org) report on a council meeting:
    http://citizenwill.org/2011/01/24/purest-form-of-democracy-raging-grannies-to-the-fore/

    Ruby Sinreich’s post of a letter from the NAACP:
    http://orangepolitics.org/2011/01/the-real-story-behind-the-sanitation-2#comment-13724

    Chapel Hill news reporter:
    http://blogs.newsobserver.com/orangechat/sanitation-2-whats-really-going-on

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