Skeel and CSD board face off
Embattled El Dorado Hills Community Services District General Manager John Skeel and his two lawyers appeared in the CSD gym last week to answer charges that he violated whistleblower statutes, tried to lay off his human resources manager and his assistant general manager without board approval, attempted to “sneak” a raise and hours increase for two part-time employees, and was generally secretive and ineffective in his first five months on the job.
The board placed Skeel on paid leave June 20, the first step in a dismissal process that the public got a rare glimpse of last Tuesday night.
The board delivered the charges against Skeel in a formal “Statement of cause for termination of employment contract” on Aug. 5, identifying failures in broad areas of responsibility, including a lack of knowledge of various district policies and functions, an unwillingness to accept responsibility for those functions, lack of participation in community activities, not engaging and eliciting cooperation with other agencies, not understanding the budget process, not attending committee meetings and failure to maintain open, effective working relationships with the board and senior staff.
Skeel and his attorneys denied all charges, turning many of the accusations back on either the board or CSD human resources manager Tracy Lynn Lowry to the delight of approximately 150 meeting attendees who clapped and hollered their support for Skeel at every opportunity.
The board retired to closed session just past the four-hour mark. CSD legal counsel Bob Thurbon reappeared later to tell those still present that the board needed more information on Skeel’s responses.
Thurbon released a preliminary reaction to Skeel’s response the next day, see corresponding story “CSD Board qustions Skeel’s ‘honesty and trustworthiness.”
The final decision on Skeel will be annonced in an as-yet unscheduled public meeting.
The mood among the lingering night owls was that Skeel and his legal team — Ellen Arabian-Lee and David Daniels of Gurnee and Daniels — defended the GM well, and that the human resources manager was a larger problem than the general manager.
Neither Lowry or Assistant General Manager Sandi Kukkola attended.
The possibility of an expensive lawsuit hung in the air through the proceedings. The board has since indicated that it is considering an independent third-party review.
Afterward, an exhausted Skeel said he was surprised and relieved at the support he got. He said he went public to try to improve the district “for all the employees, past and present,” adding. “All I ever wanted was to come back to work.”
Attorney Thurbon played emcee and district spokesperson, warning the audience that their comments were welcome but said, “This is John’s meeting.”
Board President Guy Gertsch later clarified the ground rules: The board “wasn’t defending anything” or rebutting Skeel or his attorneys, simply hearing Skeel’s responses to the charges.
Throughout the proceeding Skeel’s attorneys repeatedly objected to not being allowed to interview any district employees in preparation of their response to the cause for termination, and complained that much of the testimony heard Tuesday night was new to them.
Last Wednesday the board launched an investigation of Skeel’s responses.
The first charge alleges that Skeel attempted to discharge Lowry as retaliation for her disclosure of potential time card abuses by employees of the Parks Department, a practice called “buddy punching” in which an employee or supervisor punches a friend’s time card.
Skeel contends that Lowry provided no concrete instances of time card misuse, no specific employees, times or dates, but he nonetheless investigated and found that no such infractions had occurred.
Both sides agree that Skeel and Lowry subsequently argued vociferously over Skeel’s refusal to pursue the matter further.
The charges indicate that Skeel subsequently asked Kukkola to initiate disciplinary action against Lowry for insubordination. That act, according to district legal counsel Bob Thurbon, constitutes retaliation against a whistleblower.
Kukkola put a summary of the altercation rather than a reprimand into Lowry’s personnel record, frustrating Skeel, who stopped attending human resources meetings with Kukkola and Lowry, and revoked Lowry’s previously approved vacation days, according to the charges.
Arabian-Lee’s version includes the board requesting a reorganization plan to shave $100,000 of salary off the 2011-12 budget. “He looked at outsourcing HR,” she said. “It was just common sense in an organization with just 31 employees.”
Outsourcing the HR position would save an estimated $84,000, she added.
The charges further allege that Skeel contacted Thurbon to initiate a lay-off of both Lowry and Kukkola without obtaining board permission. Thurbon said Skeel insisted the terminations were strictly cost-cutting measures, “but he didn’t have answers as to how the services would be provided, so it seemed retaliatory.”
Thurbon then explained on Tuesday night that he was obligated to inform the board about his conversation with Skeel.
Skeel expected confidentiality from Thurbon but didn’t get it, said Arabian-Lee. “What happened next was a closed board meeting without John. After that (Director) Noelle (Mattock) and Tracy Lynn no longer spoke to him.”
Arabian-Lee also said interim Finance Manager Sherry Shannon, who researched Paychex as a source for HR services at Skeel’s behest, would confirm that Skeel’s motivation was cost cutting, rather than retaliation.
In Skeel’s telling, he shared his plan with Thurbon, along with concern that his already strained relations with the board might hinder their acceptance of his proposal. The board did flatly reject his reorganization plan.
In written responses to the charges, made available before the meeting, Arabian-Lee points out that in order to prove retaliation against a whistleblower, Thurbon must prove that Skeel didn’t care that employees might be “buddy punching” and that Lowry’s reaction so enraged Skeel he sought to retaliate by eliminating her position. “The logic in this argument defies common sense,” she states.
Attorney Daniels directed his closing comments on the retaliation charge at Thurbon. “You keep using the word ‘action,’ like John was going to take action against Tracy and Sandi,” he said. “The only action he took was going to you, his lawyer, and asking for advice on how to present this proposal. It was the board’s decision whether or not to terminate, not John’s.”
Last Tuesday night two admitted “buddy punchers” came forward. Park maintenance workers Terry Halverson and Gilbert Castellanos told the board that for the last year they’ve participated in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program once a week for 45 minutes at Brooks School near the CSD. Since they get only 30 minutes for lunch they were previously skipping their breaks on those days.
Halverson said he now understands that break skipping is also against district policies, and promised to work extra hours to make up the time. He plans to stay in the program.
Halverson said his largest frustration was reading about the incident in the charges against Skeel and never being told he was doing anything inappropriate. “The district brought the Big Brothers program in,” he said. “Gilbert and I did this in the open at their encouragement.”
Castellanos, whose family has grave health problems that consume his after-work time, told the board that he’ll be saying goodbye to his Little Brother this week. “I can’t lose my job over this.”
The board also alleges that Skeel tried to increase hours for recreation coordinator Jill Thomas and raise Parks Department Project Engineer Darrah Ramsbotham’s pay in defiance of a board-mandated freeze on discretionary increases.
The board contends that Skeel promised the increases and tried to “sneak” them into the 2011-12 budget without their knowledge.
Arabian-Lee countered that Skeel was unaware of a freeze. Both women subsequently confirmed that Skeel never promised them increases, but said he’d try.
Thomas later addressed the board, explaining that she’d been working the extra hours for free. “Frank (Sianez) and I have worked for two years to get me extra hours, not because I need them but because the job and the district needs those hours. I supervise 14 people and we have no director.”
Skeel denied hiding the increases from the board, and said he removed them at the board’s direction before the budget was finalized.
The board also alleges that Skeel attempted to renegotiate his health and retirement benefits.
Arabian-Lee questioned the wisdom of assigning Lowry, a subordinate of Skeel, to negotiate and implement his employment contract, and the result was bad blood between Skeel, Lowry and Mattock during Skeel’s first two weeks on the job.
She claims the contract contained multiple errors, including benefits changes that neither CalPERS nor the union had approved.
Skeel started on Jan. 4, 2011, and learned three days later that Mattock had directed Lowry to make the effective date of his health insurance Feb. 1, according to the response.
Arabian-Lee produced an October e-mail from Lowry stating that Skeel was eligible for health benefits on Jan. 1.
Thurbon pointed to the employment contract Skeel signed, which states that benefits begin the month after work begins. He called Lowry’s October e-mail as an “inadvertent error.”
Gertsch instructed Skeel to bring the matter up at a closed session prior to the regular board meeting on Jan. 13, which “enraged” Mattock, according to Arabian-Lee, making Skeel’s first board meeting “a disaster.”
“Ms. Lowry made sure that Mr. Skeel was not going to succeed,” said Arabian-Lee, who followed with an understated staccato that balanced her partner Daniels’ flamboyance. “He had an e-mail offering coverage as of Jan 1. He’s a cancer survivor. He depends on regular checkups. His family was sick when he arrived. He asked for Cobra coverage. He was declined. He stepped on the wrong toes.”
Arabian-Lee further accused Lowry of having a history of retaliating against employees who challenged her, and states that Skeel had no idea the hornet’s nest he’d stepped into, including the close personal relationship between Lowry and Mattock.
She alleged that Lowry’s allegations against Skeel were filed in retaliation for his attempt to obtain health insurance for his family, and that Skeel’s treatment is a better example of retaliation than anything he’s accused of.
She states in the response “[Lowry’s] unlawful employment practices have already exposed the CSD … to substantial expense and liability in the lawsuit brought by a well-respected former CSD employee of four years, Deborah Kiley.”
Arabian-Lee dismissed the accusation that Skeel “routinely used” district vehicles, despite receiving a car allowance, stating that Skeel only used district vehicles “five or six times, always on district business.”
The board also accused Skeel of failing to attend CSD committee meetings and meetings of other agencies, deferring to Kukkola whenever possible. Skeel admitted that he delegated meetings to Kukkola because there was so much to do, but filled in when she couldn’t make it.
“This board feels like you intentionally tried to conceal information from them,” said Thurbon. “You wouldn’t even share information with your management staff.”
“I didn’t hide anything,” said Skeel, who said he spoke with his primary board contact, Gertsch, often. Skeel admitted that he tried to keep the reorganization plan confidential until the board approved it, since senior staff members were affected.
Daniels bristled at the depiction of his client as secretive, citing the employment contract, which grants the general manager “full charge of the business of the district on behalf of the board of directors.”
“It’s an enumerated duty, one John tried to follow, yet when he sought legal advice from the district’s attorney they had a closed session without him,” Daniels said. “I have to ask, ‘Where’s the concealment?’”
The charges also allege that Skeel directed an inordinate amount of attention to the staff of the Parks Department, which maintains district facilities, and where his office was located.
Skeel said he worked hard to build relationships with staff. “There was a huge morale issue, specifically with the parks staff, when I arrived,” he said. “I guess I was guilty of building morale. I treated parks staff the same way I treated all the staff; I gave them the trust they deserve.”
Nowhere is the breakdown in communications between Skeel and his board more evident that in the failure to agree on goals and objectives. The board contends Skeel was “elusive on creating measurable goals and objectives,” said Thurbon.
Complicating matters, the board enlisted a consultant to help create “pay-for-performance” goals beyond Skeel’s basic job responsibilities.
Skeel replied, “Within the first 30 days I provided an extensive packet of information to this board. I laid out ideas for how goals and objectives could be reached. None of it was acted on. The … consultant … used the goals and objectives I came up with in my first 30 days as a basis for pay-for-performance.”
Skeel contends that when the process was nearly complete, Mattock turned some of the pay-for-performance goals into regular goals. “Some were impossible to meet in six months, and some required reopening the union MOU,” said Skeel.
Gertsch later said he recieved some information from Skeel, but not the packet of information Skeel referred to, and said he recieved no goals from Skeel.
Skeel described his three-month evaluation as “a brief closed session where vague matters were raised.” He said he received a short written document that was circulated then collected.
The board had to create the goals used in Skeel’s three-month evaluation, said Gertsch. “It included different categories … including a lot of things that needed to happen as far as improvements. It was a review, and we placed it in his file.”
Gertsch later confirmed that Skeel didn’t sign the document, and “handed back his copy.”
Skeel’s attorneys claim Skeel’s personnel file contains a multi-page evaluation of Skeel that is not the abbreviated review that Skeel recalls.
A visibly angry Skeel called out Gertsch on Tuesday night: “You sit here tonight and claim that I was given that document … That’s a complete lie. At that meeting …. what I got were a few bullet points related to e-mails. We spent maybe 20 minutes on that document, after which you collected them and said they’d be destroyed. The one thing that is in my file is something I’ve never seen before, and has a lot more categories than what we discussed that night.”
The audience roared its support of Skeel. When they quieted down, Gertsch calmly told Skeel that integrity is very important to him. “I’m not going to sit here and allow you to call me a liar. I have four board members sitting here that were in the same meeting. We provided feedback to you. You tossed the document back at us. You didn’t want to see it.”
The board’s subsequent investigation concluded that the evaluation in the file is what was used in Skeel’s evaluation. Village Life has asked for a copy.
As the meeting rolled into its fourth hour, the role of Lowry and her friendship with Mattock came under scrutiny by staff, their family, and the public.
Arabian-Lee pointing out that despite the fact that she was a full-time employee, Lowry also worked for the Cameron Park CSD and recruited General Manager Fred Smith, who was fired last March.
Several former district employees came forward with stories about Lowry. “They’re all similar,” said Arabian-Lee. “They crossed Tracy Lynn; they were retaliated against and they were eventually fired.”
The response to charges includes testimony from longtime CSD employee Janice McGrath, who Arabian-Lee called “a genuine whistleblower who was terminated by Tracy Lynn Lowry.”
Daniels cited a “cult of secrecy” at the district, and read the results of an anonymous survey of district staff collected in late April. The comments were largely supportive of Skeel. Many criticized Lowry, accusing her of retaliatory firings and of hiring her friends and family.
“Mr. Skeel would love to return to his work,” said Daniels, who then threatened “a full and thorough investigation of the allegations heard here tonight” if the (Skeel termination) proceeding goes forward. “I believe that there has been enough said today that each of the board members will be subject to deposition and examination under oath.”
Former general manager and current Director Wayne Lowery (no relation to Tracy Lynn Lowry) asked his successor what he’d do to rebuild the board’s confidence if he were reinstated.
Skeel replied, “Clearly we’d need to sit down and have a serious talk about communication and expectations.”