The City of Chewelah has responded to a $1.5 million claim by Denise Smith, a former city employee, that she was the victim of retaliation by the city for her filing of a “gender based hostile work environment” complaint.
Although Smith claims that she was “removed” from her position as the Public Works Director, the city’s response documents a different story. According to the City, Ms. Smith was concerned about her job security following the resignation of former City Administrator Curt Kelling and she contacted the union for protection. (The Public Works Director’s position was not under the union bargaining agreement.)
According to the response, “On October 3, 2011, Union Business Agent Steve Bruchman contacted Mayor Bauman and advised him that Ms. Smith wanted to resume her previous position in Parks/Cemetery and Mapping.” That position is covered by the Union bargaining agreement and it was the position she held prior to becoming the Public Works Director in 2007. That position had been eliminated and filled with temporary seasonal employees at a significant savings to the City.
Mr. Bruchman, Mayor Bauman and Ms. Smith met to discuss her request to return to her former maintenance bargaining unit position. As requested, Smith was returned to her original position at a total hourly wage of $23.00 – despite the fact that the seasonal temporary workers had received only $10 per hour.
Ms. Smith thought that she would receive the same hourly wage paid to Public Works Maintenance Supervisor Gary Nussbaum and, upon learning she was mistaken, she attempted to terminate her relationship with the Union. She then claimed that she was demoted to the Maintenance position in retaliation for raising concerns regarding sexual harassment and/or as discrimination for her “recent heart condition.”
In a letter from Mayor Bauman to Smith, he indicated that he was not aware of any “health issues” with the exception of a workers compensation claim she filed for “stomach stress.” And, as Mayor Bauman pointed out, the Department of Labor and Industries had denied the claim she made for “mental stress.”
Following Mr. Kelling’s resignation, Ms. Smith apparently became concerned that the City Council might also give her a vote of no confidence. She then filed a complaint for harassment on September 9, 2011and the city immediately hired an outside investigator to look into her claim. Based on that investigation, it was determined that she was not alleging sexual harassment or gender discrimination – she actually complained of a general lack of cooperation on the part of her subordinates.
The City advised Ms. Smith in writing that the City remained “ready and willing to ensure you have the necessary tools to effectively supervise your workgroup so that they meet your reasonable performance expectations, including the need to be cooperative with you.” Three days later, “Ms. Smith contacted the Union to become a bargaining unit member . . .”
The City’s response to Smith’s complaint concluded that, “Although the city did nothing more than acquiesce to each of Ms. Smith’s demands, she filed a discrimination charge with the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission). After conducting its investigation, the EEOC issued a no reasonable cause finding on March 5, 2012.”
In August 2012, the State Auditor advised the City that it could no longer transfer its electric fund surplus to the General Fund – resulting in a loss of $250,000 to the General Fund. In order to balance its budget, the City decided to eliminate funding for the library and its three positions; eliminate funding for the swimming pool and its five positions; eliminate the Executive Secretary/Planner position; and eliminate the Parks/Cemetery and Mapping position – all positions which were not essential to the City’s ongoing operations.
In its conclusion, the City’s response indicated that there was no evidence that she was subjected to gender based discrimination or harassment and denied her $1.5 million claim as being without merit.
By Lew Arnold, The Independent Staff