Sylvia Cooper

City Ink columnist and correspondent for The Augusta Chronicle.

City Ink: Rec probe gone wrong

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The name of this article is “Rec, Lies and Investigating Flakes.”

To start with, what a fiasco City Administrator Fred Russell’s government reorganization has turned out to be! Commissioners Alvin Mason and Bill Lockett were right after all.

And what a travesty Deputy Administrator Bill Shanahan’s and human resources’ recreation department investigation has been!

Director Tom Beck was fired for doing something that’s been standard practice in the department for 35 years – giving exempt (salaried) employees comp time for extra hours worked at night and on weekends. After being approved, those hours were logged and kept at the department with the payroll clerk.

Exempt recreation employees have earned and received comp time documented that way, per the instructions of human resources, since way back when.

But after what happened to Beck and now-demoted Operations Manager Melinda Pearson, it might take thumb screws to get anyone to admit it.

IT’S IN WRITING: The department’s comp-time policy states: “The Recreation, Parks and Facilities Department permits eligible employees to earn and use compensatory time.” (Up to 240 hours.)

“This policy applies to both exempt and non-exempt (hourly) employees.”

Dennis Stroud, the deputy director who Beck fired Jan. 2, updated a draft of that policy and e-mailed it to deputy directors Chris Scheuer and Joanie Smith for editing last October.

So Stroud, who denied in writing ever approving “comp time for exempt employees,” actually revised the policy authorizing it and approved Pearson’s comp-time requests.

Commissioners fired Beck on Russell’s recommendation, based on lies and politics, turning a deaf ear to Beck’s explanation of why he approved Pearson’s four comp-time days.

THE WITCH HUNT: After they got Beck, they went after Pearson, accusing her of stealing time and demoting her to maintenance worker.

Shanahan and the crack human resources team concluded in their investigative summary that Pearson, who was out on catastrophic leave from Sept. 19 until Dec. 2, had received donated leave from other employees.

And that, they said is a no-no unless an employee has used all vacation, sick and comp time.

SHE TRIED TO USE IT, BUT COULDN’T: When Pearson was hospitalized in July, she had to initiate the process of FMLA which should have been done by human resources, notorious for its incompetence.

In August, when she’d used all sick and vacation time, she asked to use her comp time – 47 hours – most of them signed-off on by Stroud. The approved forms were sent downtown to payroll but were rejected because the time wasn’t officially on the books but kept separately at recreation.

Office Manager Marilyn Newton told her she couldn’t use the time until she returned to work from medical leave. Beck sent Payroll Clerk Lisa Hall to retrieve the forms.

“Three weeks after I returned from catastrophic leave, I requested to use this comp time through Mr. Stroud, and he approved (it),” Pearson states in a letter submitted to each city commissioner last week, along with stacks of documentation.

“The accusation made against me alleging that I didn’t try to use all of my time while on catastrophic leave is false, yet the city chose to publicize this incorrect information through the media, further defaming and slandering my name and character.”

Stroud denies approving the four days.

“I find it appalling and despicable that nobody from the city has taken me up on my offer to clearly show that Mr. Stroud is lying about this matter. Instead the city has chosen to act upon the word of Mr. Stroud,” Pearson stated in her letter.

Initially, Shanahan came to the department, reviewed her records and told her in front of Beck and Scheuer that she kept excellent ones and that everything was fine. Employment Relations Manager Ron Clark even told her that all of her co-workers he’d interviewed said she was the hardest working employee in the department and that the hours she’d worked above and beyond her 37.5 hours were not even in question.

Shortly thereafter, Employment Manager Onajuanita Foster accused her of theft and she was demoted to lay bricks, install tile and roof buildings.

Do you think they’re trying to make her quit?

OIL AND WATER: Last year, the recreation department merged with other city departments to become Recreation, Parks and Facilities, and the manpower assigned to the operations division more than doubled.

Pearson took on extra responsibility with no pay increase. Stroud became her direct supervisor and ordered her to have no contact with Beck. He said he “ran this train, not Beck.”

In a Dec. 18 memo to Beck, she said she was contemplating filing a grievance against Stroud for making threatening remarks to her in front of a subordinate. Pearson said she believed Stroud was setting her up to be fired, but he got the ax first.

Employees who were merged with recreation apparently had little supervision before the merger, and after Beck fired Stroud, they started calling commissioners to complain that Pearson was creating a hostile work environment.

Can you imagine that? She actually tried to get them to work. And she had GPS devices put on their vehicles. So they got even.

UNACCEPTABLE QUESTIONING: So Russell sent Shanahan and Clark out to investigate, but the probe went so far beyond the initial purpose, Beck e-mailed Shanahan on March 23, to complain of inappropriate questioning of employees by Clark and Foster.

“Employees were also questioned about being on probationary status and whether they feared for their jobs. How is any of that part of an inquiry about time cards? I have a big problem with this – especially since I have not seen any unresolved complaint against any employee of this dept, or me for that matter. … All of this is UNACCEPTABLE, and I am officially putting an end to any further discussions with my staff regarding this topic or regarding time cards.”

WORSE THAN SHAMEFUL: But after Beck was fired, it got worse. Shanahan called a department meeting with all employees except Pearson to gather evidence. Several employees later said it was shameful.

“They said Shanahan, Clark and Scheuer created a lynch mob type of environment and that they were worried about me and said that they were told not to tell me anything, threatening them with loss of their job if they told me anything. During this meeting, Mr. Shanahan incited employees to make vicious personal attacks about me and even my husband.”

Those same employees expressed concern for their safety because of the hostility Shanahan stirred up.

“I would like to know why Mr. Shanahan felt so compelled to hold such a meeting that allows for a lynch mob environment and promote hostility,” Pearson said.

We’d like to know too, especially since it didn’t do anything but send employees tattling to commissioners, prompting Russell to go out there last week and tell them to cut it out.

Like that’s going to happen.

Comments (23) Add comment
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Pu239
284
Points
Pu239 05/12/12 - 10:36 pm
0
0
It's a good thing Melinda
Unpublished

It's a good thing Melinda Pearson didn't steal any sand from the National....she would be on her way to Jackson High Max....(eyeroll)

raul
4824
Points
raul 05/12/12 - 10:45 pm
5
0
A-RC gpvernment is rampant

A-RC gpvernment is rampant with incompetence. The axe needs to fall starting at the top, but I'm sure Fred has been given favorable performance ratings for years, right? What an embarassment.

seenitB4
86692
Points
seenitB4 05/13/12 - 07:56 am
4
0
Heh

Lawsuit heaven..

avidreader
3166
Points
avidreader 05/13/12 - 08:25 am
6
0
I Smell a Lawsuit!

Pearson and Beck will most likely sue the County and win. And perhaps they are deserving of their claims. However, I hope the details of the suit are there for all Augusta citizens to witness. Many times, our county government settles litigations quietly and little is known of the real truth.

Ms. Cooper, good job. Please do not quit on this story. Your voice is trusted in our community.

justthefacts
21698
Points
justthefacts 05/13/12 - 08:54 am
8
0
Tom Beck

Beck is probably relieved to away from all the bull he was having to put up with. A sweet little nestegg from a law suit would only make it better. Noteworthy in all this is Grady Smith's ability to see through it all and vote to keep Beck employed.

itsanotherday1
42836
Points
itsanotherday1 05/13/12 - 09:24 am
6
0
Sylvia is da bomb!

Thank you Sylvia, for continuing to shine a light on those who would operate in the dark.

gcap
290
Points
gcap 05/13/12 - 10:03 am
3
0
Why return?

I left RC at a time when I thought it could get no worse in 2005. I've wanted to return to enjoy downtown and the river. But I see that I was mistaken back then. It is indeed much worse and, I'm afraid, things will continue to deteriorate. Would someone please give me a good reason to return?

seenitB4
86692
Points
seenitB4 05/13/12 - 10:09 am
2
2
gcap...

Sometimes I say the very same thing gcap......my family wants me back in the area.....but politics stink.....if I do go back I probably will be in Appling.......still some fresh air there.

Carleton Duvall
6305
Points
Carleton Duvall 05/13/12 - 10:30 am
4
5
Politics

Politics stink everywhere. Augusta is a great place to live. You are placing the emphasis on the wrong things.

gcap
290
Points
gcap 05/13/12 - 10:31 am
6
1
It could be a place to be

Augusta could be a good place to be. The river, Clark Hill, amazing wildlife nearby, close to big cities, the mountains and coast. Yet, all we really know about our area is the rotten state of affairs at all levels of government. Is it too much to ask local officials to educate children, protect the citizenry, and spend money wisely? Must be.

Iwannakno
1533
Points
Iwannakno 05/13/12 - 10:41 am
1
0
Lawyers love filing lawsuits against the city
Unpublished

Of course once the lawsuits are filed the city will settle out of court without having to reveal details of the cases against them. Same stuff different day!

seenitB4
86692
Points
seenitB4 05/13/12 - 10:50 am
2
1
Duvall

There are areas in augusta that are still safe & nice just as you say....I lived there for most of my life.......but in todays world I want to have some input in my local government.....sorry but I don't see that happening in Richmond county....
I guess the great parts of Gwinnett county have spoiled me somewhat...& most of the decisions of our local government are right on the money...

dstewartsr
20389
Points
dstewartsr 05/13/12 - 10:54 am
8
0
Same stuff, different names.

I always look forward to MS Cooper's column on Sunday to give the truth about what I've read all week. This time, she really delivered.

I so wish Columbia County had at least one 'journalist' at the local rag not in the pocket of the commissars and their puppet masters. I'd also like a rabbit that cries diamonds and a goat that belches fire.

Little Lamb
45819
Points
Little Lamb 05/13/12 - 10:55 am
3
2
Schmolicy

So the Rec. Dept. has a policy that reads (according to Melinda Pearson):

The Recreation, Parks and Facilities Department permits eligible employees to earn and use compensatory time. (Up to 240 hours.) This policy applies to both exempt and non-exempt (hourly) employees.

Well, you can write policies ’till the cows come home, but if those policies conflict with federal law, they are not worth the paper they are written on. Federal law treats exempt and non-exemt differently regarding time worked in excess of 40 hours in a week.

And I hope to goodness that what Sylvia reported in her column is not the entire policy. It's much too loose. I wish a real reporter would report the details. Also, we need to look at what policies lurk in other departments in the Marble Palace.

Another thing bugging me is why Melinda Pearson needed to take ten weeks off (with donated leave presumably after using up her vacation and sick leave) and then when she returned to work after those ten weeks, she quickly turned around and took four days off claiming comp time. What in the world did she need the time off for?

nowhine
5373
Points
nowhine 05/13/12 - 11:44 am
3
1
A Big Cheer for Sylvia

She always hits the nail on the head. I agree that the same cutting insight should be used on Columbia County.

Conservative Man
5564
Points
Conservative Man 05/13/12 - 01:04 pm
11
0
Scuttlebut is that there will

Scuttlebut is that there will be subpeonas issued in Mr Beck's forthcoming lawsuit against the city.And subsequent to that, revelations will be made about not only the "Wreck" department but the actions of several city leaders in this whole sorry affair. Further that more than "heads" may roll. Some careers will cut abruptly short at the highest levels.....I say it couldn't happen to a more deserving group......stay tuned..

dichotomy
32715
Points
dichotomy 05/13/12 - 02:04 pm
6
0
This is the government you

This is the government you get for your tax dollars RC. It's a snake pit. Ambushes, witchhunts, turf fights, and big egos. All instigated by an incompetent mayor, commission, and administrator. And you get to pay for all of it twice...AS USUAL. Once the regular way and then again with the lawsuits and settlements. I used to think that the RC government was such a joke because the smartest, competent people in this county did not run for office since they did not want anything to do with the mess that Consolidation had created. Now, 17 years later, I have come to the conclusion that we do not have any smart, competent people in ths county. The smart people moved to the next county. As you can see, it is prospering and the tax rates are going down. Wonder why?

This entire thing was an obvious setup. The city attorney ought to just go ahead and write Beck and Pearson a check for $500,000 each, give Beck his full retirement, and restore Pearson to her previous job and salary. Too bad these political ambushes aren't criminal. If they were we would be electing some new commissioners and hiring a new administrator and some new deptarment heads. As it is I guess we are stuck with our current crop of dummies and the bill for their incompetence and pettiness.

Conservative Man
5564
Points
Conservative Man 05/13/12 - 03:02 pm
7
0
Dichotomy. The story I heard

Dichotomy. The story I heard was that Deke and Fred tried to buy him out but Beck was so incensed that he turned them down and said in effect.....see you in court!....The plot thickens....

wasted tax dollars
22
Points
wasted tax dollars 05/13/12 - 04:03 pm
2
0
The kick in the butt is, 10

The kick in the butt is, 10 weeks off with donated time from other employee's. To get donated time, you have to exhaust all your sick, vacation, and COMP time. Then, after returning from the 10 weeks off on other employee's generosity, some how able to take off and claim COMP time. Was she back long enough to accumulate any COMP time? From what's been reported, it does'nt appear like she was.

Justin4466
43
Points
Justin4466 05/13/12 - 06:44 pm
2
1
"To start with, what a fiasco

"To start with, what a fiasco City Administrator Fred Russell’s government reorganization has turned out to be! Commissioners Alvin Mason and Bill Lockett were right after all."

I can't believe what I'm reading. It seems that Beck and Pearson are victims of the very policy manual Beck assisted Fred in concocting. He of all people should have known what is in the new controversial manual. All past good ole boy practices went out of the window with the MANUAL. Pearson will see also that according to the manual her only recourse is in the administrators hands. What she gave to the commissioners is a waste of paper and time since the new manual says the only option is in court. No commissioner, no personnel board.....court.

Abbynoll
282
Points
Abbynoll 05/13/12 - 06:52 pm
4
0
wasted... the article says

wasted... the article says that she attempted to use the comp time when she was out but was told that it wasn't "official" comp time.

"The approved forms were sent downtown to payroll but were rejected because the time wasn’t officially on the books but kept separately at recreation."

lil lamb: "Well, you can write policies ’till the cows come home, but if those policies conflict with federal law, they are not worth the paper they are written on. Federal law treats exempt and non-exemt differently regarding time worked in excess of 40 hours in a week."

Sure, you can't write policies that violate Federal Laws, but you can write policies that are more generous than federal requirements. It is done every day in businesses all across the nation. At least that was what I was told when I wrote p&p's for an organization I worked for in Florida. Those p&p's ARE basis for law suits. If the p&p was adhered to, and someone was fired for doing exactly what the p&p said.... well, cha-ching is all I can think.

Discussionstarter
495
Points
Discussionstarter 05/13/12 - 08:45 pm
2
0
The truth will surface...

... And... Beck and Pearson will have a nice deposit in their checking accounts.

what he said
21
Points
what he said 05/13/12 - 10:45 pm
2
0
Wow. Sylvia prints Ms.

Wow. Sylvia prints Ms. Pearson's package and that qualifies as insight. The bar is pretty low here is Augusta. Did you bother to verify any employee comments or did you just quote the second hand information you were gifted?

Did Ms. Pearson bother to put in her packet the fact that she threatened to write up a subordinate for not attending her momma's funeral? Thought not. And other are creating a hostile work environmeny. I would laugh if it weren't so sad. Your mind was made up long ago and you are too willing to listen to anything that backs your preconceived notions.

double_standard
166
Points
double_standard 05/14/12 - 11:20 am
3
0
once again

Once again this so called reporter gives us her assertion on of bias and slanted news reporting. Did Ms. Pearson reveal having her North Augusta Public Safety Officer husband sitting in the office with her all day intimidating the other workers? Or her the extra long lunch breaks at the marble palace your first day back at work after your suspension.

nnaugusta
533
Points
nnaugusta 05/15/12 - 02:38 pm
1
1
Double standard, those are

Double standard, those are some mighty nasty accusations you are going public with. We can only assume you personally have proof of this because I'm sure LT. Pearson will have to answer to his superiors as to why you witnessed him intimidating people in another city/state when he should have been at work in North Augusta. I would guess his attorney, along with Mrs. Pearson's attorney will be wanting talk with you at length. Since you know for a fact she took a lengthy lunch break, care to give out the names of the people she was with. Also, it would be nice for you to inform the public what kind of intimidation was going on, the date it was happening, and how you timed her lunch break. We're you on the clock with her or on your break during these discoveries you have brought to the attention of the media and the reading public?

(Double standard stated that: Did Ms. Pearson reveal having her North Augusta Public Safety Officer husband sitting in the office with her all day intimidating the other workers? Or her the extra long lunch breaks at the marble palace your first day back at work after your suspension.)

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